Few guitarists have garnered the respect of otherguitarists like Alex Lifeson. What can I say about this musicians musicianthat hasn't already been said? He's just about accomplishedevery goal that any guitarist could have and he's won nearly everyaward you can think of, both as a guitarist and with his bandRush. On Thursday, July 22, 2004 I hadthe pleasure to chat with this legendary player about his career, familyand hisMasterbiltEF-500R. I found out there is much more to Alex Lifeson than guitar-godstatus. He is genuinely one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and has a great outlook on life in general.
EPI: Hey Alex, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Tell me about your early guitar days. What was your first guitar and how did you begin to develop your playing?
ALEX: Well, when I was twelve, my parents bought me my first guitar. It was a Kent and then the following year I got a Conora which was my first electric. I'm basically self taught from listening to records. I was heavily influenced by Hendrix and Pete Townsend of the Who...Jimmy Page was a big influence as were Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, particularly the Cream era. We started Rush in 1968 when I was fifteen years old and started playing clubs, high schools, things like that in the Toronto area and Southern Ontario, the province that we live in. In 1974 we got our first record deal and started touring.
EPI: I didn't realize you and Geddy met at such a young age.
ALEX: Yeah, I actually met Ged a couple years before we started Rush and we would jam at his place or my place. We just released our Feedback CD that features some of the songs we played back then.
EPI: So Rush is really the only band you've ever been in?
ALEX: Pretty much, yeah...
EPI:Out of all those guys you cut your teeth on, who would you say was the single biggest influence on your playing?
ALEX: I would say that probably Jimmy Page was the greatest influence in my early days. Certainly Hendrix was just unbelievable but I never expected to be able to play like him! And....you know, I rediscovered during the production of this Feedback project that Pete Townsend was really an enormous influence on me. He was such a consummate rhythm guitarist. That's kind of where I developed a lot of my approach to the way I look at the band. The Who were really a three piece band instrumentally, similar to us in that they had a very active rhythm section. Between Geddy and Neil...those guys play like crazy all the time so I always felt that it was important for the guitar to play a broader foundation role. I tried to develop a style that was more chord based with suspended chords, open chords, etc., just to create more noise underneath this activity of the rhythm. Townsend used to do that a lot. He had such a great strumming technique and he had a really great guitar sound too. You know he never had that over-distorted, "buzzy" kind of heavy sound. It was always clear and "ringy" with all the power in his right hand. The way he strummed, how hard he hit the strings affected his tone and that's something I think I've developed into my style over the years. For example, in the studio I prefer to roll the volume back to 7 and just hit it a little harder or maybe even 5 or 6 and feel the power in my arm rather than in the vibration of the speaker.
EPI: Would you say the inspiration for the new CD was a return to your roots?
ALEX: Yes, in a way it was....into our deepest roots. We knew that we were going to do this 30th anniversary tour and we wanted to have something released. We talked about maybe doing a couple cover songs making them available on our website but once we got into it, we fell in love with the idea. We were having so much fun that we expanded it to 8 songs and if we'd had the time, we could easily have done 12 or 13 songs and made a full album. These are songs we played when we were kids just starting out and learning how to play our instruments. There's a "Crossroads" version similar to what Cream did, "For What Its Worth" and "Mr. Soul" from Buffalo Springfield, "Seven & Seven Is" by a band called Love with guitarist Arthur Lee. Every guitar player and every drummer had to learn that song when it came out....I think in '67. We really had a lot of fun with this project and it was a wonderful way for us to pay tribute to some of the music we grew up with.
We even recorded it with the spirit in mind. We went into a studio here in Toronto called Phase One. They've got an old Neve console, kind of from that era and we recorded everything off the floor with the three of us in the same room. Now days we tend to record everything separately but we were all in the same room, playing at the same time, no click track, all kinds of Lava Lamps in the studio, about ten thousand candles, a bunch of cool old carpets we threw down on the floor....it really had that vibe to it.
EPI: Sounds like a blast! Are you playing these tunes on the tour?
ALEX: We're doing four of them. "Heart Full Of Soul" by the Yardbirds, "Crossroads", "Summertime Blues", and "The Seeker" by the Who.
EPI:I noticed you are headed to the UK later this Fall. How has the overseas market played into your career?
ALEX: The first time we went to Europe was in 1976 when we did a relatively short British tour. It was in the Summer and it was so successful that we were back in February of 1977 to do a much more extended sold-out tour. So, we had pretty good success early on, particularly in the UK but we haven't been there in about 12 years. As we started to pull back on our touring schedule, that was kind of the first area that went. You know, after a while you just can't do the "200 shows a year" thing anymore. We typically now do somewhere between 60 and 70 on a tour so obviously we need to concentrate on America....it only makes sense...but we decided to do this European tour because we hadn't been there in so long. As it turns out, the UK tour is sold out, half the dates in Europe are sold out and the other dates are doing very well.....and it's still a couple months off. It's nice to be reminded that we have a strong following in the UK and Europe.
EPI: Throughout your career, Rush has consistently broken the mold for what a successful rock band looks like....you know, the three-and-a-half minute, hook-laden tune was not in your repertoire and yet you have been hugely successful selling tens-of-millions of records and CD's and creating an insanely huge, loyal fan base. What do you think it is about Rush that connects with people despite the fact that you don't fit the dictated pop music mold?
ALEX: Well, I think in the very early days there was something about Rush that was really non-radio, that set it apart from everybody else. We wrote longer songs, we were more interested in the musicianship and it was all about the band and not about the lifestyle. On top of that, our lyrics were a lot more serious than what a lot of rock bands were writing at the time so while we did get some good press, most of the press we got was not so good....and I think what happened was that people became attached to this band because we were different, unusual and not popular. It became kind of a cult thing and over the years our audience has just grown with us. We've tried to stay true to our original beliefs and we've been very uncompromising, satisfying ourselves before anyone else with our music.
We were fortunate enough to make a record that was successful, fairly early in our career...it was like 4 records in, called 2112 and the record company realized that hey, these guys have what they have and they know what it is, so we're not going to interfere and just let them do what they're doing because we're selling records. And management was the same way. We've never had anyone from the record company or management spend a day in the studio or even an hour in the studio when we've recorded! We've had total freedom to do what we want and I think our fans understand that and appreciate that....and expect that from us. We've really developed this relationship and the bottom line is that we try to play as best we can. We've always set a very high standard for ourselves and people appreciate that. People want to hear good players play and players that try hard. Modern music is all over the place right now but it's not well supported. Its hard to really find music that's challenging and compelling....and I'm not saying that music sucks.....there are a lot of great bands out there and lots of great players but you really have to look for them.
EPI: Are there any modern groups that you like or listen to?
ALEX: I've always been a huge fan of Tool. They haven't done anything in a while now but Adam Jones is a great guitarist. I really like his style of playing and they remind me of us in some ways. I know that we've been somewhat of an influence on them so I can hear that exchange in their music. Queens of the Stoneage, I really like a lot. Incubus, Mars Volta, you know that sort of thing. I don't really listen to a whole lot of music lately though.
EPI: With all your experience and your keen ear I am surprised that you haven't jumped into the producers chair yet.
ALEX: I've done some stuff, some small projects. Producing is something that I really enjoy doing and I'd like to do more of it but I know so many world class producers that are finding it difficult to get work now as it is. I'm not in a big hurry to step on their toes and right now my plate is pretty full anyway. We started working on this tour last September. It takes a lot of time and effort to get all the visual stuff together as well as the musical stuff. We'll be out until the beginning of October and then we'll take some time off, then start up with a new studio record and follow that with a tour. It's all a matter of how busy you really want to be. I really miss my family when I'm away. I was gone for 2 months before coming home this week and I treasure every minute I have at home.
EPI: Tell me about your family.
ALEX: I've been with my wife since we were fifteen. I have two grown sons but I have a grandson now who's coming up on nine months old, so that has become such an incredible experience for me. I love the fact that I'm getting a second chance at being around one of my kids, even if it's a generation apart. At least I'm seeing him grow and I can be an influence in his life. He's just a joy!
EPI: Wow! You've been with your wife since you were fifteen! How do you balance marriage and the grueling schedule of a world touring rock band?
ALEX: Well, you know it's become a way of life for us. We started touring, I mean really touring when I was 20 years old so it was certainly a difficult adjustment for us. We also had a family when we were very young but we just worked it out. No marriage is a smooth road. There are lots of bumps and curves but if you manage to get through all those bumps and curves early on you get a nice flat wide open road for the rest of the ride and it can be a wonderful thing, Certainly my wife and I have made many adjustments, many accommodations to each other and a marriage is fraught with many compromises that you have to accept but we've loved each other very deeply and that got us through any kind of rough patch.
EPI: That's a testament to your integrity and commitment to each other.
ALEX: Well it is, and you know Geddy and his wife have been together thirty four years. In fact I introduced her to him so I mean, that's kind of the way we are. We're from a very sort of normal middle class background with middle class values. We come from families that always had a good strong work ethic. You know my dad always had two or three jobs. He believed that if you needed something or you wanted to buy something then you had to be prepared to go out and work for it and I think I learned that from him. It was the same way with Geddy's family and Neil's as well.
EPI: That's refreshing to hear from someone that has reached your level of success in the rock music field, you know, not the norm.
ALEX: I think that it's the only way you get to be in a successful rock band thirty years later. I mean, I think you have to have your head screwed on pretty good and your values in the right place. It's so easy on the road and in the rock and roll world to start believing all the crap that people tell you and it will be your downfall if you start believing you're as great as everybody says. I've seen so many artists, so many musicians crash that way.
EPI: I understand you picked up one of our Masterbilt EF-500's recently. Have you had a chance to check it out?
ALEX: The day I got it, I took it out to sound check and I was using a Gibson J-150 that I really like. I mean I'm very happy with that Gibson and in the studio it's become one of my main acoustics. It has a really nice, sweet sound to it but when I plugged in the Masterbilt...It had that really clear bright top end but the real surprise was the depth of the bottom end and how tight the bottom end was on the guitar. We plugged it in and right off the bat, it required no EQ! I mean, it sounded great and I've been using it since. I'm really impressed with the way it sounds and the neck feels very interesting. It's got a bit of a V shape to it which is a little different for me and I like that. I have 14 guitars out on the road and we do 21 guitar changes through the course of the show. I'm doing that because I like having a different guitar in my hands so the Masterbilt adds one more dimension to that mix.
EPI: That's a lot of guitars. With so many guitar changes in the set, how important is your tech to you and what is his role?
ALEX: Very important. My tech is Rick Britton who has been with me since Vapor Trails. He does guitar set-up and he actually re-wired my whole rig. He's a bit of a genius and really good with that sort of thing. He made things a lot more efficient compared to how I was doing it and made the system a lot quieter and tighter. I do however like to do my own programming and I do my own switching. I know a lot of guys have it done off stage now but there are so many movements in the course of any one song and I like to be in control. I have a bit of a curse in that my pitch is very good and I hear things very easily so if something's not right, I can hear it right away. I'd rather be responsible for those sort of things than you know, screaming in frustration at someone else (laughs)....which I still do once in a while (laughs again).
EPI: Well listen man, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk and on behalf of a generation of players that have been and continue to be influenced by you....Thanks again!
ALEX: My pleasure.