"We wanted to make something that was intense." So says bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee about Rush's Vapor Trails (Anthem/Atlantic), their first studio album in 6 years, and he couldn't be more dead-on in his assessment. On a recent trip to New York, Lee and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson sat down with Mobile Entertainment to talk about how the album came to pass, their new cars, DVD and surround sound, and what to expect on their summer/fall tour. Welcome back, gents; this is the spirit of radio.
MIKE METTLER: So, it's not a quiet record, is it?
ALEX LIFESON: No, no. (all laugh)
GEDDY LEE: It's a nice, calm, reflective record. Just take it out to the Zen garden...
LIFESON: It's good to do yoga to....
METTLER: Can I get a timeline as to when everything started coming together for this record?
LIFESON: We spoke mid-2000, I think. Neil [Peart] felt he was ready to get back to work. [Not too long after the Test for Echo tour ended in 1997, Rush drummer and lyricist Peart lost his daughter in a car accident and, subsequently, his first wife to cancer.] We sat down and talked about how we'd put this thing together. Geddy was finishing up his record [2000's My Favorite Headache]. We pushed things back a little bit from our original plans - we were going to get started in the fall of 2000, but actually started in January 2001.
We dove into it. It was slow progress in the beginning. We had to feel our way back into the project. After a few months, we started to get some great material, and it went from there.
METTLER: Coming into the project, did you already have demos of material you'd worked on individually?
LEE: No, we started from scratch. We went into it with nothing, just to see what would happen. I would say, generally speaking, Rush albums are time capsules that reflect our state of mind, state of musicianship, and state of attitude toward writing at that particular moment in time.
METTLER: Well, you're not in the rocking chair on this record - in a manner of speaking. I mean, it's hard to sit still when listening to Vapor Trails.
LEE: Oh cool, thanks.
METTLER: The tone and feel of it is very aggressive.
LEE: We wanted to make something that was intense. It's a "back with a vengeance" kind of record.
METTLER: I've been trying to think of a band that's been around for almost 30 years coming out with a statement like this at this stage in their career - and Vapor Trails is definitely a statement.
LIFESON: Yeah. There were some very passionate, very emotional writing sessions. A lot had happened in the 5 years before we'd made this record. When we came into it, I think we needed to get a lot of this out of our systems. And it was really reflected in the power of it. To my ear, it's the most emotionally satisfying record we've made in a long time.
METTLER: I'm sure some listeners will be looking for certain meanings in the lyrics in wake of what "happened" - not only personal events but what occurred last September. Was anything written for Vapor Trails after September 11?
LEE: Well, so much of this record is about emotions, as Alex said. A lot of it is about looking for spirit and finding positive energy. And I think we share the feelings that everyone felt September 11 when those tragic events occurred. In a way, there's commonality between the aftermath of that and the aftermath of any devastating tragedy in your life. So there are trails to the same feelings.
There's one song, "Peaceable Kingdom," that's a direct response, or reaction, or collection of thoughts that came from those shocking events. I think it speaks to some of the positives and negatives of that.
METTLER: (paraphrasing lyrics) "Some people will not listen anyway."
LEE: It talks about the difficulty in uniting cultures when one is focused on wishfulness and one is focused on hatred. It's kind of a prayer in a way, wishing that there could be some other way.
METTLER: (to Alex) Do you still have your Mercedes? [We did a cover feature on Lifeson's 1983 Mercedes 380SEC in the January/February 1994 issue of our predecessor, Car Stereo Review, and ran a brief followup on his '95 Mercedes 320TE in the March/April 1996 issue of CSR.]
LIFESON: Nope, I got rid of all my Mercedeses. I now have a 2001 Audi A6 4.2. It's got the sport package - flared fenders and dropped a couple of inches. It has their upgraded Bose system. It's a great system. I'm in that car listening all the time, listening to mixes. I base all of my decisions on what I hear in that car.
LEE: I have an A6 that has a Bose system, too, and I like it.
LIFESON: It becomes your reference.
METTLER: Well, this is a great in-car record, I can tell you that. We had it out in the car over the weekend. I kept turning it up and up, and my wife didn't mind. (all laugh)
LIFESON: It's got a nice bottom end to it.
METTLER: In terms of gear, anything new get into your hands for this record?
LEE: We recorded using Logic Audio [a 24-bit hard-disk system]...
METTLER: You used that on your solo record [My Favorite Headache], right?
LIFESON: We've used Logic Audio for a few years now, Cubase prior to that. We've always been involved in the digital-recording area. This time around, certainly from my point of view, I've really simplified things: guitar cable goes into an amp, and into my guitar. I took all of the effects out. Well, some songs have effects on them - on the secondary guitar parts - but for the main lines, it's straight guitar into an amp, which is a nice change for me.
LEE: We like that.
METTLER: Nice and raw.
LEE: We're big fans of going straight into the amp. (Lifeson laughs)
METTLER: That'll mean less foot-pedal work onstage.
METTLER: I heard some backwards guitar riffs here and there, like on the intro to "Vapor Trail."
LIFESON: (nods) Atmospheric things, yeah. There are no keyboards on this record. We took it upon ourselves to provide those kinds of effects through guitars and voice.
METTLER: Your mandola shows up on "How It Is," right?
LIFESON: Yeah, I sort of earmarked "How It Is" as "The Mandola Song," but it did show up in a few other spots, like on "Earthshine." It was the great utility instrument.
METTLER: The main guitars you used were...?
LIFESON: I had all of my guitars out. My main guitar has always been my Telecaster. I used my Howard Roberts Fusion, my 355, my 335... really, I had everything out there. The room was full of guitars. Every guitar got a chance to get up and make a noise, which was really nice.
And I used my Hughes & Kettner TriAmp, and their zenTera modeling amp. I also had a Matchless Clubman, and I think I used my Marshall for a couple of things, but primarily it was the TriAmp.
METTLER: (to Lee): And you're still using your '72 Fender Jazz bass?
LEE: (in monotone) I used my bass. (all laugh) My one bass, on everything, all 400 tracks. I used a very interesting system: a SansAmp unit called the RBI that's just a great, great bass distortion unit, a Palmer [PDI-05] speaker simulator, and an Avalon U5 DI [direct] box. I get all my noises from that. Plus, obviously, old compressors, which are in no small way part of this thing.
METTLER: You again worked with Paul [Northfield, who's also engineered albums for Hole, Marilyn Manson, and Ozzy Osbourne] on this record. Did that factor into the approach?
LIFESON: Geddy and I felt pretty strongly that this was an album we would produce within the band. It was really the right time for it. We started writing on our own, and recorded a lot of stuff on our own, with the idea that we'd be able to keep those early takes where you get that magic that's hard to recreate. Then Paul joined us halfway through the project, and we moved into the next phase of getting good drum sounds.
METTLER: Did you seek him out specifically for this album?
LIFESON: Yeah, yeah. We had a few people in mind, but we chose him. He's got a great track record, and he's a wonderful engineer. We've done quite a few records with him in the past. It was very comfortable. We could keep everything internal, and not have to introduce a new face into the whole mix of things. [As an engineer, Northfield had worked on Rush's Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures (1981), Signals (1982), Grace Under Pressure (1984), and two of their live albums, A Show of Hands (1988) and Different Stages (1998).]
LEE: And it was nice for him, too, because he's worked with us in many different capacities, but never without someone else taking the job of co-producer - aside from the live things that I had mixed with him, such as Different Stages. So it was great for him to feel involved in the decision making. He was very helpful.
METTLER: What are your plans for future DVD releases? [Currently, only Chronicles, a collection of videoclips made before 1988, is available.] Last time we talked about it, you'd mentioned the possibility of the footage shot for Different Stages as being considered for official release.
LEE: We do have some footage we need to make decisions about, but we haven't had any further discussions as we've been too busy making this record. Nothing's really changed since we talked about it last year.
METTLER: 5.1 recording is continuing to evolve. Any further thoughts on that? [Lee talked with us about surround sound in "Headache Remedies."]
LEE: I have mixed feelings about it. I'm not too stoked to run out and start remixing everything in 5.1. At the moment, to me, the benefit is largely to reproduce live music, because you can create the atmosphere of being in the venue and recreate that ambience you can find in the venue and with the crowd around you, and so forth.
Artists who are starting to remix music so that "things" are flying all around you - that's a different issue. That's a creative issue. And that takes a lot of thought.
METTLER: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and I talked about that recently. He recorded a live DVD [And All That Could Have Been, on nothing/Interscope] the right way, putting microphones all throughout the venues, and you really get a sense that you're in the middle of what's going on.
LEE: That's my point exactly. That's tailor-made for 5.1.
METTLER: I've heard some original [studio] material in 5.1 that's just sounded quite bizarre.
LEE: I would think that it would be distracting, quite frankly - it would take away from the music, as opposed to enhancing it. But maybe they said that about stereo...
LIFESON: Quad is more appropriate, but that didn't last long. Surround sound in a home theater makes total sense, of course.
LEE: I think it's totally being exploited as a marketing angle right now. People are trying to stick it wherever they can. It's a cash grab at the moment. I'd rather wait for the right time.
METTLER: Are you going to record this tour looking toward a possible 5.1 release?
LEE: Geez, I hope not. (laughs)
LIFESON: I think... no.
LEE: We'll see. At the moment, I'm not in any big hurry to get involved in any live recording. For historical purposes, I suppose somewhere down the line we'll film something.
METTLER: You're taking the show on the road starting in June.
LIFESON: This is primarily a shed tour, and we'll be out there until mid-fall. We're also looking into some international dates as well.
METTLER: How will you do the show - in the vein of "An Evening With," without an opening act?
LEE: Probably, probably.
METTLER: Good! That worked so well on the Test for Echo tour [1996-97].
LIFESON: Yeah, it's fun for us, too.
METTLER: How about playing all of Vapor Trails? (all laugh) That gets my vote - all 67 minutes of it.
LEE: That would be fun. We'll see how many we can squeeze in. It's hard to satisfy everybody's requests, but we should be able to get four or five numbers from the album in there.
METTLER: It sounds like such a great album to play live.
LEE: Yeah, I think it will be. I have no idea if I can sing it and play it at the same time yet, but we'll find out. If not, Alex can always do the singing. (all laugh)
METTLER: Well, they've got that cloning thing going on now...
LEE: It's amazing how similar we sound when we sing live.
LIFESON: It's very true! It's incredible. Unbelievable.
LEE: We're like identical twins! (laughs)