Up front is the man-siren shriek and thundering bass of Geddy Lee. While propelling things from behind is, quite possibly, the greatest rock drummer of all time, Neil Peart. So, a mere mortal might be inclined to shrivel up and play barre chords. But Alex Lifeson has always been up to the challenge. From the crashing riffs of "Working Man" and "Passage to Bangkok" to the searing leads of "Limelight" and "The Main Monkey Business," he has always represented the cutting edge of rock guitar. Alex recently visited the Gibson Custom Factory and sat down with Gibson.com.
It seems like you guys are jumping on the road just as things are getting going in the studio.
Yeah, well, we were off for a year and a half and we finished the last tour in July '08. So, we had a fairly long break. You know, Neil had a baby girl last summer, and we did 120 shows on the last tour, and we really felt it.
We wanted to take a break and just not think about the band and all that stuff. And then, like it always happens and I don't know why, and you don't seem to remember it, but it seems like overnight you go from zero to a million.
We had a couple meetings in the fall about scheduling and things to do, and then we came home and everything just went crazy. We've been doing some writing in the last couple of months. We have some stuff written, a couple of songs we wanted to release for the tour. In fact, what we talked about, originally, was just to play them live, not record them, and make it something kind of unique to the tour.
But the more we got into them, the more we lived with those songs, the more we got into the idea of recording them. So they will probably be released by the end of July.
What's your target for the album release?
We'll see about that. We're not even ... we haven't even talked about when we are gonna start the recording of the album.
Judging by the album we've written so far, we've got half of it written, really.
It's unusual for us to go out on a tour at this point, but the timing was important.
We needed to get out. So, I'm guessing if it all goes to plan, we will be finished by the end of October, get back into the studio fairly quickly and continue writing and recording. We should probably have something released by late spring of next year.
You were a Serbian kid in Toronto. What was the music scene like? You know, it's the Sixties. How much of that was filtering to you?
Actually, Toronto had a very vibrant music scene in the late Sixties. Neil Young was there. Joni Mitchell. There were a lot of great songwriters and musicians.
There were some local bands that were fantastic. I remember the Ugly Ducklings.
Kensington Market was another band that was very progressive for its time. And it was a mix of rock and folk and really intense internal dynamics in the band. I don't know if you have ever heard of the Paupers? There were lots of really great, different and diverse bands in the Toronto scene at that time.
What was your place in that scene; progressing up through '74, up to when you guys had your first album?
Well, certainly in the very beginning we were just another basement band, like everybody sort of starts out. Gigs were scarce. You played at a high school dance or a drop-in centre or something like that. I remember we did drop-in centres a lot in those first couple of years, for 10 dollars. Parks and Rec would run these kinds of dances. I remember we did one at a junior high school that was about five blocks from my parent's house, and we actually carried our equipment over because we didn't have a car and there was nobody to give us a ride. So we did trips; we carried a guitar, went back, carried an amp, went back and got the rest of the stuff, which was okay going, but not so great coming back.
But we kind of floated around and did that until 1971, when the drinking age in Ontario was lowered from 21 to 18. And overnight, all these clubs opened up. So really, right at that point we started playing. We went from playing maybe three gigs a month on Friday nights to playing six days a week and sometimes a matinee on Saturday afternoons. And then there were the towns in Northern Ontario that we would go up and play for a week or two.
That period from about '74 to '80-'81 or so, did you feel, at the time, that you were making, as songwriters, giant leaps forward from album to album?
We felt like we were evolving, certainly.
I don't know if we...See, for us it was a much more gradual thing. You do it every day, you're not really that aware of the change. We were also playing 250 shows a year back in those days. We were really getting a lot of playing in; we were in really good shape because we were constantly touring. Getting into the studio was an exciting thing, and it always seemed to take us forward.
You have announced that you're doing Moving Pictures, in its entirety, on this tour. What is it about this album that you think makes it such a key album for fans?
It's probably a lot of things. From our point of view, that record was really fun to make. We were coming out of a period of writing longer pieces, thematic pieces, and actually with Permanent Waves, it was probably the first time we got into a more economical style of writing and putting more punch into a four-minute or five-minute song than a nine- or 10-minute song. There was great positive energy in the studio when we made Moving Pictures. The songs, I think, are among our strongest songs. There's great variety in character in the songs. They don't have a "same-ness" like some of our stuff does from an album. At least our experience is, you get very comfortable working in a particular key, or sound, or style; and of course, then the whole record ... for example, Grace Under Pressure to me, when I listen to that, it really does sound like it was all recorded at that time in that studio with that amp. It has a "sameness" to everything about it.
I love that about that record, but with Moving Pictures, you remember "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight," "Vital Signs." They were all quite different.
You guys seemed to make the transition from the '70s to the '80s a lot more successfully than a lot of guitar bands.
Yeah, we kind of had that in the '70s, too, because punk was really taking over when we were starting to pick up some more notoriety. Maybe not so much here as it was in Europe, but yeah, we managed to transition okay. And I think a lot of that has to do with our fan base. When you've got fans like we have, it just gives you so much more freedom to follow your path. And it made those transitions much easier than it has been for other bands.
The transition, if you want to call it that, to more guitar-oriented albums ... where does that come from?
It's probably a reaction to what we were doing in the '80s, when we started incorporating keyboards into our sound. It was still a very new thing, and that's what really connected to us. But I think, once we got through the '80s, we realized we went as far as we could with that. The real core part of the band is really in the three pieces ... and really in the guitar.
Around the early '90s, though, we all made this conscious effort to step away from keyboards, especially Geddy, which you would think would be unusual. But I think he'd had it and felt very confined in his area of the stage with keys and stuff. I mean, even with stuff we're writing now, I have been the one kind of introducing some keyboard lines.
So to bring it back to the new material you're working on; is this more guitar oriented stuff? What kind of feel does it have?
Oh yeah, it's in-your-face guitar stuff.
It's awesome, great. In fact, I'm really pleased with the way it's turned out. Everybody's playing really well. There's great energy and there's great rhythmic funkability going on there and some really cool stuff and I am really, really pleased with it.
Interview courtesy of Gibson Guitar Editorial