Rush's Alex Lifeson: The interview

By Keith Spera, New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 19, 2008

Since Rush last performed in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1996, guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart have, like the city, endured their share of heartache.

The band took a four year hiatus following the 1997 death of drummer Neil Peart's only child, a 19-year-old daughter, in a car accident; less than a year later, his wife died of cancer.

When a newly remarried Peart was finally ready, the trio went back to work. They discovered their popularity as a live act had only increased. Their first-ever concerts in Brazil included a show for 40,000 fans at a Rio de Janeiro stadium, documented on the gold-selling live album and DVD "Rush in Rio."

Marring this period was Lifeson's New Year's Eve 2003 run-in with sheriff's deputies at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Flor. The guitarist and his son were charged with multiple felonies, then later pled no contest to a misdemeanor. They subsequently sued the Ritz-Carlton and the deputies involved for battery, unlawful arrest and false imprisonment; they were in turn counter-sued by two deputies.

The band recently launched the second leg of a tour promoting its current "Snakes & Arrows" album. Lifeson called from tour rehearsals in Toronto in early April.

In the days following the interview, the band would be forced to move its scheduled New Orleans Arena concert to April 20, in order to accommodate a Hornets playoff game the previous night. Rush manager Ray Danniels also announced the band would donate $100,000 to various Hurricane Katrina relief initiatives.

So you're gearing up the machine once again.

Normally at the start of a tour, we're coming off a fairly long break. We'll spend two months in rehearsals, between the individual stuff we do, then as a band for three or four weeks, then full production rehearsals for 10 or 12 days. This time around, because we're really just picking up the tour, we only blocked in a week and a half (in Toronto) and managed to get up to speed very quickly.

After watching the intense crowd response on the "Rush in Rio" DVD, I'm surprised Rush even bothered to come back to North America.

I know. (laughs) I'd like to move there. That was an incredible experience. It completely caught us off guard. We had no idea that we had that kind of following in Brazil, or in South America, for that matter.

The crowd actually sang along to "YYZ," an instrumental.

When we mixed that, we probably sat there for an hour just watching the crowd. We kept replaying it without the band, just listening to the crowd tracks. It was amazing! It was so loud. It was really exciting.

The band generally takes a long time between albums and tours. But going down there for the first time seems to have renewed your enthusiasm.

That whole tour was about renewal. We were coming back after a very difficult four years, particularly for Neil. That whole tour was about rising up from the flames and getting back into the groove. It was a nice way to end -- that was the last day of the tour. It was a very positive moment for us.

That momentum continues.

Since the first date on the "Vapor Trails" tour (in 2002), I don't think I've gone onstage without thinking, "This could be the last gig I ever do, so enjoy it." All the tours we've done since then have been a lot of fun and so enjoyable. I don't dislike a single song we're playing. I'm not bored of a single moment onstage. It's a good feeling. We're very lucky. (laughs)

The first leg of the "Snakes & Arrows" tour was your highest grossing tour ever.

We were probably up about 20 percent on average on attendance. We always do well, but there were even more people coming out on this last tour. And a lot of younger kids, which was very interesting to see.

Back in the day you guys cultivated a mystique. Nowadays you seem to be much more visible. Is there a concerted effort to not be in the shadows as much?

I'm not so sure it's a concerted effort. I think it's a natural development. We're a little more confident and comfortable in our skin as we get older and mature. For a long time, we really wanted to keep the band a separate issue from our own private, personal lives. And we were really successful at that for a long time. You don't hear much about the band; we certainly aren't in People magazine or anything like that.
There's a lot more attention being paid to us currently than there has been in a long time, and it's all kind of interesting. But we're still kind of like a small, cult band -- that's the way we look at it. We don't have big, burly bodyguards and all that crap. We just go out and do our job and we have fun doing it, and then we go home.

Neil, especially, tries to maintain a little bit of distance.

That's the kind of guy he is and that's the kind of guy he's always been. Despite all the terrible things that happened to him, he's always been like that. He's not comfortable with crowds, which is a drag for a guy who has to sit in front of 15,000 people a night. The guy's such an amazing musician. People start complimenting him and he gets embarrassed.
So he's built this wall around him -- fence is probably a better term. He'll make contact, and he's a great guy, but he's just a little uncomfortable with all the attention and the big crowds. It's hard for him to relinquish privacy.

Speaking of People magazine, I was taken aback by your little mishap in Florida.

It was a horrible, horrible experience that still continues four and a half years later. I was having dinner at one of the most elegant resort hotels in the country, and the way we were treated....I was beaten up, I had my face punched in by three cops, I was Tasered six times, my son was Tasered twice. And we didn't do anything! I was dragged through for 15 months before the criminal end of it was sorted out. I was charged with five felonies, and all of them were dropped. What does that tell you?
So I took legal action. It's been a real fight. The Ritz-Carlton is a big corporation, and they have a big, powerful law firm. All I ever asked was my day in court.... It's been an uphill battle at every stage of the way. I didn't make a big deal of it, even though it was eating away at me every day. I wanted it to be sorted out and I wanted my chance in a court of law to deliver the facts as I know them, as well as the 12 other witnesses that we were bringing.
I try not to think so much about it these days and let it happen the way it's going to happen. We're waiting for a ruling on the appeal and then we'll see where we go.

It makes you wonder how the guys in, say, Motley Crue, deal with things like this all the time.

I've never been in a fight in my life! I'm a grandfather. I'm very proud of the work that I do. I set high standards for myself and my family. I love my family and I'll protect my family with my life. For that, I've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend myself, and I get run over.
I had a great lawyer, and the facts of the matter were what they were. But I'm telling you that in Collier County, which is a very conservative part of Florida, the sheriff's department....they're mean guys. It's a big force, and they exercise a lot of force. I've seen them pull over a car with old ladies, cotton-tops, and the deputy had her out of the car with her hands on the back of the car like something out of "Cops."

Getting back to the band....Have you ever disagreed with a point of view Neil has put across in his lyrics?

I don't know if I've disagreed. There may have been times where I was probably not as passionate as something he was talking about. But it's all about the delivery of these concepts that he has. They're usually a band concept. We get into the idea of what it is and the way he's going to deliver it through his lyrics.
The relationship for lyrics between him and Geddy is very close. Neil will rewrite three, four, five, 10 times if he has to if Ged's having a problem with getting the idea across or just being comfortable with the number of words that he has to sing. They work very well together. I've seen Ged take out one word from a stanza and say, "That's the word that I'm feeling in this stanza. Can you rewrite the whole thing around that word?" (Neil) always obliges. It's very professional, a real shared experience.

Neil has dealt with religious themes and agnosticism in the past. Why such a focus on "Snakes & Arrows"?

Well, look around. The world's a crazy place right now and it's driven by religion. It's always been driven by religion. But currently the division between the East and the West, and the small representation of the very militant within those groups creating such an enormous has to be talked about and thought about.

Do you do "Faithless" live?

No. We talked about it, and we were prepping it, but we decided to keep the set the way it is. We do nine (songs from "Snakes & Arrows").

The acoustic/electric interplay throughout "Snakes and Arrows" is reminiscent of old-school Rush.

I wrote basically the whole record on acoustic. That's the way we used to write in the old days. Everything has a particular flavor to it. The chordal structure has more of a folky attack. Those bass chords, C and G and D, played down low on the neck like you would on an acoustic guitar, just lends a different character to the music once you electrify it.

Since "Vapor Trails," you've definitely gone back to basics and pared your sound down.

(Producer) Nick Raskulinecz really woke us up. He's been a fan of ours since he was 11 years old. I think Rush was the first band he went to see live with his mom in Knoxville. So for him, it was really a lifelong dream to work with us.
We're always looking forward, we're always trying to progress with every record we make, and we can drive ourselves crazy doing that. He said, "That's fine, but don't leave what made you the band that you are behind. Think about the way you write, think about the way you arrange music, think about some of the sounds that you used traditionally. Don't run away from those things all the time."
It was an eye-opener for us, because we do tend to do that. One of the reasons "Snakes & Arrows" works the way it does is because there are elements of the old Rush, the past Rush, but we try to package it in a very forward and contemporary way.

So is Coheed & Cambria the best Rush cover band you've ever heard?

(laughs) Nick worked with them just recently, too. I don't know. They're a little heavier, I think. I guess the comparisons are always with the vocals.

You guys have become a reference point for younger bands.

With a lot of these younger musicians, they look to us as an example of, if you stick to what you believe, you can make it. You don't need radio and all those other things that are increasingly becoming less important as the industry changes. A lot of young guys look at us and go, "These guys are in their 50s and they're still playing, and playing well. We can do it too."

Did Neil and Geddy ever give you crap back in the day when they would be in the "Best Bassist" and "Best Drummer" polls and you wouldn't?

Nobody even pays attention to that kind of stuff, really. Expect me! (laughs)

So is the future of the band open-ended at this point?

With every tour, it feels like it's the last tour. But we're really enjoying ourselves. We're playing the best that we've every played. We're sounding really good, really tight. But there are other things in life. You keep thinking as you get older that maybe you want to pursue other things, or maybe it's time to pack it in, blah, blah, blah.
But this time, though, just before we started rehearsals, Ged and I were talking about what we're going to do on the next tour. So I guess we're looking forward. I don't know what our plan is. I think we want to take a little bit of a break after this tour ends.
We're saying that, but I don't know what's going to happen. We might get itchy like Ged and I normally do; after a few months we'll want to start writing and get back into it. Whether we go back in the studio and make another record or do another tour...hard to say.
We've got so much catalog. I'd love to do a tour where we just play stuff that we've never played before. Don't play anything that we play now and call it the B-track Rush tour. Play some of the stuff nobody has ever heard us play live. That would be a lot of fun. There are lots of opportunities and directions that we can go.

On the band's 30th anniversary tour in 2004, you did an acoustic segment for the first time. So there are ways to innovate.

There's been talk about getting an orchestra together and doing "2112." That's almost Spinal Tap-ish in concept. But at the same time, it might be kind of cool with a great visual presentation.

I'm glad that after a decade you guys have found your way back to New Orleans.

How are things there?

Well, we had a little weather mishap a couple years ago. Where Rush is playing at the downtown arena, everything looks fine. But there are still neighborhoods pockmarked with devastation and plowed fields that used to be houses.

I suppose it's a little shocking to us that don't live there that more hasn't been done quicker to get the city back. It's such a fantastic city and such an important city in America.

Is lighting designer Howard Ungerleider still on the road with you?

Oh, yeah. He's still there. He'll always be there. He's been there since '74. Liam Birt, our road manager, has been with us since '72. We've got some old guys for sure, but even the young guys want to keep coming out. Everybody gets along great and there's no ego.
Geddy and I just played "YYZ" with the Foo Fighters here in Toronto at the Air Canada Center. Those guys are so much like us. They're the sweetest, regular, normal guys. Dave Grohl is hilarious, and he's so great with the crowd. But you could see in their crew that they would do anything for them. Because there's no division between crew and band, and "you can't talk to this guy" and all that crap. There are lots of artists like that, and I just don't get it.

So you did "YYZ" during the show with the Foo Fighters?

An hour into the set, Taylor (Hawkins) did a little bit of a drum solo and then we came up and played "YYZ."

That had to go over huge.

Oh yeah! I couldn't believe how fast it was posted on YouTube. Within minutes.

There are no secrets any more. That Rush mystique we talked about can't maintain that at this point.

No. It's impossible.