(CNN) -- At age 15, fledgling guitarist Alex Lifeson teamed up with a couple of kids from his suburban Toronto neighborhood to form Rush. Now, more than 30 years and 17 studio albums later, the band is still going strong.
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN's Geneen Pipher, an enthusiastic Lifeson shared his thoughts on Rush's new album, "Vapor Trails," the musicians who inspired him and making music with his son.
CNN: Congratulations on your new album - it sounds amazing ...
ALEX LIFESON: Thank you so much.
CNN: It (the album) sounds to me like ... I don't know ... my first impressions of the album were that it was just three old friends just getting together, jamming, having fun, letting it all hang out, I guess is the term ...
LIFESON: You know, you're not far off the mark, actually. It was very gradual. I think coming from, you know, everything that happened in the last five years with Neil ... and Geddy doing his solo record, me doing some other things it took a little while to get going, but once we did it took on a life of its own and we were just along for a ride. And, it felt very much like that, you know, like it was just us getting together and playing and having fun with it. We're really going back to a more organic three-piece kind of thing.
CNN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you approached coming back after such a long time off?
LIFESON: Well, Neil spent much of that time trying ... recovering ... from the tragedy in his life. Geddy had done his solo record, I'd ... actually, I am sort of repeating myself aren't I? (laughs)
I had done some work producing some different bands, done some work with television, we got a call from Neil ... and it was really up to him ... everything was suspended in terms of what Rush was about; there was just no joy in it anymore when all that stuff happened. [Ed. Note: In 1997, Rush's drummer, Neil Peart, lost his only child, Selena, in an auto accident. Less than a year later, his wife, Jackie, died of cancer.]
But about six or seven months before we actually started work we got a call from Neil and he said, "I think it's time that we sat down and started talking about what we're going to do as a band." We got together and we were all a little apprehensive and a little unsure about how to go about it. But he indicated that he was ready to try it at least working again and we slated January 2001 as our beginning. And we got together and it was very slow ... the first two weeks we spent just talking about everything ... I don't think we played a single note while we were in the studio-and this time around rather than going to some country location and writing for six or seven weeks and then going into the studio and recording we started in the studio from day one and the intention was to work in a way where we could keep everything that we did rather than view it as a demo period of writing and then the actual recording.
So that made things a lot less pressured. It was key, I think, for us to make everything very comfortable for Neil make it a stressless environment, and - as I said - it was a gradual, you know, move towards getting back in shape again. He hadn't played drums for a long time and he needed the time to just build up his chops again.
And for us, Geddy and I hadn't worked writing together in a while and because we'd been doing such diverse things we needed some time to get used to each other again.
CNN: So your hiatus was basically ended by Neil, you weren't going to approach him at any point?
LIFESON: No. No, not at all. In fact as far as we were concerned whatever happened with Rush was gonna happen. It was out of our control. For us the important thing was to support our friend and brother in a ... during a very, very difficult time.
CNN: How is he doing these days?
LIFESON: He's doing very well. He remarried a year and a half ago. His wife is great. She's very supportive of him and strong. And he's learned to find happiness in life again. It was a very long, painful recovery and it's not over. It's a lifelong thing and the scars are very, very deep, but they are healing. And he seems ... you know Neil's never been really big on touring ... at least not for the last 10 or 15 years anyways. He's a very private person and not particularly comfortable around crowds and ... I mean he's in the wrong job for sure ...
CNN: Yeah, he's always struck me as the solitary writer kind of guy ...
LIFESON: Absolutely. He is. And he's a wonderful person and he is very, very funny and great to be with, but he, you know, with strangers it's difficult for him. But I sense an excitement in his voice, and when he talks about the preparation he's been going through for the tour and his involvement with the set list and all of that. I sense an excitement and I think he is looking forward to it ... on one level anyways.
CNN: You mention the set list for the upcoming tour. Can you give us any hints on what you're thinking about? Are you going to delight fans with some old stuff?
LIFESON: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean we're aware of the Web sites ...
CNN: RushPetition.com and the like?
LIFESON: (laughs) Yeah. And we're taking all of that into consideration, you know it is also important for us to pick songs that we won't get bored with over the course of a long-ish tour and we're talking about having some surplus songs where we'll just add them in on a nightly basis and switch [them] around to keep us on our toes. And I think we're going to drop some of the older classics that we've played for a long time and replace them with other old songs that we've never played before or at least haven't played in a long time. So until we actually get into rehearsals, I am not really sure what we'll do. We probably have about four and a half hours of material right now that we have to condense down into three hours.
CNN: So you're going to drop some of your old classics ... can you give me any idea of what those might be?
LIFESON: Well, "Closer to the Heart," for example. We've been playing it for, my God, 25 years - every tour, every time! And I think we have like four different video versions of that song and its appeared on a few live records, so that's one I think it's time for retirement. And, I won't say what we'll replace those songs with but we are looking at older material to bring that at least into the first set ...
You know (on) this record there are no keyboards we really liked playing as a three-piece. It was very energetic and the music is very driving and quite intense. And when Geddy and I listened to all the old material when we were getting the set list together, we went back to "Fly By Night" and we spent an afternoon going through all our old records and it was WEIRD because we hadn't listened to these records in ages ... and we got off on a lot the very old stuff. We're really enamored with the idea of freeing ourselves up on stage a little bit. We've been trapped by the technology for quite a few years and we'd like to feel a little freer and have fun, you know? And feel like we're making a little more contact.
CNN: It's interesting that you say that because my entire impression of the album was that it was just like you were having fun. There was a joy to it ...
CNN: I got a message of joy from it despite some pensive lyrics ...
LIFESON: Yes. You know the album is about hope and recovery and optimism and looking forward to a future. And there are moments that are ... very moving on this record. Lyrically, it is obviously autobiographical. But both Neil and Geddy worked hard to make sure that, certainly from Geddy's point of view, that it was a little bit more universal so that he could really get behind them and really sing them with the passion ... I think these are the best vocals he's done on any of the records and you come out of it feeling very positive.
CNN: I was particularly taken with "Ceiling Unlimited." Can you talk to me a little bit about that song?
LIFESON: Yeah. That came from one of the later jams. Most of the record was written in these groupings of jams that went on and would last like a week or so and then we would sift through all of these hours of jams that we'd do and we'd pick out bits and pieces that we really got off on and we'd start the song construction. And, "Ceiling Unlimited" came from the same grouping that "Peaceable Kingdom," "Freeze," and "Nocturne" came from. So they are all kind of related in that way. And, really, just the title is pretty obvious ... that anything is possible, and even out of the darkest darkness there's light. And, just reach for it.
CNN: You were mentioning the lack of keyboards. On this album you really seem to come alive.
CNN: You just seem to have come out of the woodwork. I was really struck by the stuff that you were doing on this album. He's out there. He rocks. Who knew?
LIFESON: Yeah, you know I am partly to blame for that. I'm a little bit lazy and I like ... I like things to be smooth. And in the past when we've worked on records, I've had strong feelings about keyboards and the competition between guitar and keyboards. I'd much rather spend time creating sounds on the guitar that are organic ... that would do the same job that keyboards do, which to me are very one-dimensional. ... And it is so much more fun to create these more unusual sounds.
To an extent, Geddy did that with his voice on this record too. He used his voice more as an instrument to create those same sort of backdrop sounds that we used keyboards on the past with. And, consequently, the album sounds bigger and more ... I don't know how to describe it ... more passionate. There's more "feel" to it.
I mean, I have been doing that for the past five years. The stuff that I do at home ... I have a studio at home, and for me it's like going to the gym. I go to my studio and I basically exercise at the studio and try a bunch of things and I write a lot of stuff that ends up being exercises, you know? I go back and I review it and I think "oh that's an interesting texture I got there," or "that doesn't sound like a guitar at all, I should keep that in mind." It's wonderful to be ... to have that flexibility and freedom to be creative.
CNN: How would you say that your guitar work on "Vapor Trails" differs from previous albums - especially the ones in the later '80s and '90s?
LIFESON: Well certainly in the later '80s my guitar sound was much cleaner and brighter ... it had a very active sound rather than a passive sound. I think we were peaking on our keyboard explorations at that time too, so I gravitated to a sound that was a little more biting to get through that.
I think, in retrospect, one of the mistakes that we made with "Power Windows" and - I won't say they were mistakes - but with "Power Windows" and "Hold Your Fire," just because of time and scheduling we did the keyboards before we did the guitars and we just loaded those records with keyboards, particularly "Power Windows." When it came time to do guitars, I was ... I really had a tough time trying to fit pieces in ... and to me they are very fragmented and there isn't the kind of cohesion that, say, "Vapor Trails" has on it. It almost seemed to me like the guitar was secondary at times and that really has haunted me over the years, and I really wanted to get away from that.
Geddy knew full well by the time that we got to this record that I really wanted to get away from keyboards entirely. And, you know, his feeling is: if keyboards work for something, fine, let's use them, but if they don't work, fine, I don't care. I really don't want to play them.
And, you know, we do that stuff together so it became more natural with this one. And we've been moving in that direction for the last few records. And it was just a mindset to know that they weren't included at all on this record. I hope it stays that way.
CNN: So that was a conscious decision ...
LIFESON: Yeah. It was. It always is. And you know, I always go through that at the beginning of a record. For the last few records I have talked to Ged about getting away from the keyboards or using them much less ... and we try to ... or in the past we've tried to use more organic sounds ... in the recent past ... kind of organ sounds or piano sounds, rather than synthesized abstract sounds. But it was a ... this record was all about our hearts and it shows, I think.
CNN: This is something that could break wide open.
LIFESON: Well, we've had terrific success so far with "One Little Victory." We came into Atlantic on Sunday night and they were all going crazy yesterday morning when we went to number one with the first single on, I guess, Heritage Rock Radio, and all the other charts, they have been up and up and up and up. So it's a really overwhelming feeling 'cause you know we're not a big radio band. It feels good.
CNN: Was there any point at which you thought Rush might not make another record and, if not, would you have been OK with that?
LIFESON: Yeah, I think were just so upset by the events that unfolded. For us music is a celebration and all of that left us when those events happened. And it was hard to get interested in music again. And certainly after a while with both Geddy and myself, we needed to move on and that was part of closure of that period.
With Neil it was a different story. We really had to wait for him ... before music could come back to him. And, really, he didn't listen to any music for four years really.
I think that, we felt unlikely that things would get back together ... and, yes, I think we were OK with it.
It was definitely a feeling of sadness. I think that there wasn't a sense of closure with the band, that it was a long history that we had, we'd accomplished a lot of things and if that's the way it was going to end, then so be it. We had no power to change it. And I think as we got further away from it and started pursuing some other things, we were more accepting of the possibility that we wouldn't get back together.
But when Neil called, I have to say that my heart soared. And the reason really was because it said so much about his recovery ... that he was coming back to the world of the living. I mean, even if he wasn't really ready for it, he was making an attempt and there was that little faint light in him that was glowing again.
CNN: It's interesting you say that because so many of the lyrics hint at that ... that he's still working on it and still coming through it all, but the glimmer is there ...
LIFESON: Yeah. It's the revival of spirit. And it's an ongoing work with him, but you know he's doing really good. He is really doing well.
CNN: I am glad to hear that.
LIFESON: Yeah. Everybody is, you know ...
CNN: Just as a human being, to say nothing of the music ...
LIFESON: Exactly! Exactly. It didn't matter about the band, a record or any of that. And it was great with our fans too because everybody was so hurt and pained by the experience and our fans really feel such a special association with the band and everybody was so ... you know, they handled it so well ... No one was pushy or prodding or anything like that. We were given some space and we really appreciated that.
CNN: That's another thing I wanted to ask you about. Your fans. What is it about your fans that makes them so incredibly loyal?
LIFESON: I guess we've always been outside of the mainstream. We've always been sort of a "cult" band. We haven't gotten much airplay over the years. It's been all about touring and playing live for our fans. And also lyrically, there's more to think about. We try to be thought-provoking, not, I don't think in Neil's lyrics it dictates one way or another of thinking but the important thing is just to think and make your own opinions and that's always been key with us. It's more of a thinking person's kind of music, I suppose, in an area of rock where it can either swing from partying like crazy to totally depressed (laughs) ... and basically nothing in between.
So I think as we've grown and our audience has grown and reaching different stages in their lives they've made that connection. It seems that we've provided something for a lot of people at different points in their lives when they needed some support or some kind of influence. And that's what we hear more than anything else. And, a lot of our fans they're doctors, airline pilots and engineers ... You know it's a really wide spectrum of people, but the common thing is that they all hold the band so dear to them. I mean we are so lucky. That has allowed us to do what we do and I don't know if we'd ever be able to do that today if we were a new band signing to a record company. I doubt it very, very much.
CNN: I was going to ask you if there was ever a point where you worried the fans might not be there after such a long time off, especially in today's flighty music climate ...
LIFESON: No I don't think I did worry about it. I mean I was ... I wondered how things would go and once we started the record we couldn't think about anything else ... the work was so intense. We couldn't come up for air for 14 months until it was finished. And then suddenly we were barraged with all this press and promotion to an extent we've never done before. It bowled us over. I mean we've been around a long time and we're used to this sort of thing. A little bit out of touch maybe, but we're used to it. But this is just crazy!
CNN: Are you glad?
LIFESON: I am totally flattered by it. It's a wonderful feeling. I'm a little tired by it that's for sure and I want to get into rehearsals. I think I'll feel a little more secure about things when we get into rehearsals. I mean today's a big day. The record is out finally, so that's one little hurdle that we've gone over and now it's preparing for the tour and then getting out on the road. But it feels wonderful. It just feels really wonderful to have all this interest in the band and it seems very, very heartfelt.
CNN: Can you tell me some of the songs or artists that would be on the soundtrack of your life?
LIFESON: Well for me I suppose Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin for sure. I mean Led Zeppelin had such a big impact, Jimmy Page in particular. I loved his style of guitar playing, I loved what he represented, I loved the looseness in his playing ... it was structured, yet it walked along an edge, that I found so full of life and so exciting. And so many different bits of music throughout my life when I think about it. When I was very young the Beach Boys, the sound of the Beach Boys, the joy in their music was really inspiring when I was 12 or 13 years old when I wanted to learn to play guitar and learn to play music. There have been many over the years.
CNN: What do your kids think of your music? Are you a hip dad?
LIFESON: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, they've liked the music for a long time. They've been on the road when they were very young, so their connection is a little different. You know, I don't know how they view me. I think to them I am just Dad. But they're not young kids, they're adults now. And my younger son, Adrian, does a lot of writing. He writes electronic music. It's beautiful. It's very dynamic and very emotional. And I've been doing a fair amount of work with him lately, he's asked me to come in and do guitar on some of the things he does. And it's very trancey kind of ambient music. So we're having a lot of fun. And he, you know, he guides me along, he tells me what he wants and what works and what doesn't really work and I love that. To be in that environment with your kid, where you're both creative and I feel like a kid still. I am 48 years old and I've been doing this since I was 15 in this band and I've been so lucky to be able to do that. And to have my son there with me, just hanging out together and getting off on the music and getting all excited is a wonderful experience.
CNN: Well, Alex, it's been an incredible pleasure to talk to you.
LIFESON: Thank you.