The Gibson Interview: Alex Lifeson

By Michael Wright,, February 18, 2011

It can't be called a comeback, because Rush never really went away. But the past few years have definitely seen a reemergence into the public eye for Canada's favorite sons. It began with the 2007 album, Snakes & Arrows, which vaulted to #3 on the U.S. charts. Then came their hilarious appearance on Stephen Colbert, which immediately became an Internet must-see. But things really took off last year with the release of the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, which was a critics' favorite at film festivals and made the band suddenly...well, cool. The group released a single, "Caravan," and then embarked on the incredibly popular Time Machine tour, which found them resurrecting one of their most popular albums, Moving Pictures, in its entirety. And somewhere in between, the group has been hammering away on a new album, Clockwork Angels.

We caught up with guitarist Alex Lifeson in Toronto, just as he was about to head off to the studio to work on Angels. Lifeson has always been rock and roll's quintessential team player: a virtuosic talent who selflessly yields the stage to the band's other virtuosic talents: bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart. But even though he may gladly step aside for a drum solo or two, Lifeson has always stood out to guitarists, especially, for his creative, fluid, even awe-inspiring playing. And to that lot, this week's announcement of the new Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess is a godsend. Lifeson has always been a stickler for both sound and utility in his instruments and the Axcess was custom made for his needs.

We spoke with Alex about the Axcess, his rollercoaster ride of a year and the greatest riff of all time.

It's been, I guess, about a year since we last spoke. You've had a lot going on in that time.

Yeah, a lot. (laughs) Actually, it's been crazy. Non-stop, but it's good, you know? It's nice to be busy, as much as you can.

Absolutely. When we spoke last year, you had two songs in the can for Clockwork Angels. How far has work on the album progressed?

Well, you know, we had six songs written. Those two were the two we decided to record just prior to the tour start, around this time last year. Since then, Geddy and I have been writing. We've been writing for the last couple of weeks and I think we've got the makings of another song. Pretty close. Some other snippets of ideas. Once we get back into the writing full-steam in the next week or so, with all those bits and pieces, I'm sure we'll be able to get at least another song or maybe two. In which case, I think we're looking at eight or nine songs as the magic number.

Are you starting to get a sense of when the album might come out?

Well, you know, that's been sort of in flux lately because we decided to go back on the road. We finished the last tour and there was such a movement to keep us out there. (laughs) And we gave in to that. You know, our intention was to get into the studio and record as soon as that brief tour ended, but that didn't quite happen. So we're back from this tour in July. We'll take a short break in the summer, start recording in September and hopefully have the new album out for the start of the next tour, which would be in the spring of 2012.

Because the songwriting and recording process of the album has been drawn out, on account of the tour, have you found that the material or the concept has evolved beyond what you originally conceived?

Well, it's hard to tell because we haven't really gone back to the old material. Ged and I both really wanted to move forward. You know, if we start listening to the old stuff, we'll get bogged down with reworking the arrangements. I know exactly what we would end up doing. Instead, we'd rather move forward, continue writing, then look at the whole project and see what needs to be done with it in terms of any other rearrangements or rewriting or anything like that.
Actually, that's the benefit of looking at this as a long-term project. There's lots of room and space to update and change things as we go along. In terms of whether it's deviated from the original concept, it's a little hard to say. Neil, already, has been talking about rewriting a bunch of lyrics and he has some shifts, I think, in direction maybe in mind, although he hasn't elaborated on that yet.

Speaking of the tour, are you guys continuing to play Moving Pictures or was that just for last year?

No, this tour really is just a continuation of that. As I said, we hadn't planned on doing a long tour. It was 45 dates, which is relatively short for us, with the idea of getting back into the studio quickly. We're going to do another 38 or 40 shows on this [tour], made up of three runs, kind of East and West Coasts, and then Europe and the U.K. in May. So it was kind of important that we continue the set just as it is - particularly in Europe and the U.K., 'cause they're kind of expecting what Time Machine was over here. So we've been tempted to change out a few songs, but we decided that we would keep everything intact. And we're really not hitting a lot of the markets that we've already played on the last tour. We're really picking up a lot of other places and certainly that whole month that we're spending in Europe is new.

What has it been like to revisit that album, now that you've played it for, as you say, 45 shows?

Well, it's interesting. I've been in the studio with Rich [Chycki] and we've been remixing the album for the thirtieth anniversary in 5.1 Surround, so it's a whole kind of different perspective. And we've been very careful to try to keep it very true to its original tonality and perspective. Of course, that's going to change in 5.1 and it's quite dramatic, but it is really cool to listen to and, as I said, we're trying to be faithful in terms of, you know, mixing and tonality.
Over the years, we've been doing most of that album. Probably the only track we haven't done in a very long time is "Camera Eye," and I think we possibly only played that on the actual Moving Pictures tour. So, it was interesting to revisit that, and I find that whenever we go back to some of these old songs, we approach them with a little different energy and a slightly different perspective. We did a little bit of trimming on that particular song. And that's probably our most requested song from fans over the years. So, it was nice to trim it down a little bit and just give a little more emphasis to the parts. It's quite a bit more dynamic. And now that I've been listening to the record a lot, going through this remix, I can see that it's grown quite a bit. All the songs are, you know, that much more powerful, particularly live.

You mention the remixing you're doing on Moving Pictures. You've also spoken recently about your plans to remix Vapor Trails. What went into that decision?

Well, we've been toying with that idea for quite a few years now. And there was initially no interest from the record company in rereleasing it. It's a little bit of a dance that we would have needed to do without their support in terms of releasing it and getting the releases for it.
The thing about that, I mean, you walk a very narrow line... That album's almost ten years old. It's a very, very important record for us. There's a lot of emotion on that. We were coming back after a very difficult period in the band's history and certainly in Neil's life. So for us, there's a great deal invested in that record and it's very, very special. And in a lot of ways, I wouldn't want to change anything, because it was recorded in such a way that we captured the very essence of what we were doing at that time. You know, you could say that that album is sixty percent demos, because really that's kind of what it was. Most of that record was what we wrote. We didn't rerecord it. It was the most basic essence of the idea. And that's what was really special. But sometimes when you do that, you're not really aware or conscious of production merits, sounds, spending time creating sounds and, you know, developing that end of it. So consequently, the record suffered a little bit from production or lack of production. And when it went to mastering, it was mastered very hot and all we hear is the little bits of distortion here and there, and these compromises that were made on production.
It's always bothered us, so we thought [we would consider it after hearing] a couple of songs that Rich Chycki remixed. They were really a lot closer to the way we always would have liked to have heard that record, you know? And we talked about it and so we decided, "Let's just - you know what, if it's just for the three of us - let's just remix the record so we're happy with it. At least we know that we've done it, that we've got that out of our system. We'll pay for it. It's no big deal. Let's just do it."
You could say that of any record. Go back and remix Caress of Steel or something, but I don't know. Something about Vapor Trails... We just don't feel like we serviced the record properly and we want to give it another breath. And I know it upsets a lot of fans. It goes both ways: I hear from a lot of fans who think it's just a great a idea and they can't wait to hear it, and others who say, "Why are you touching this record? You should not touch this record."

When you rerelease it, are you considering something like Pet Sounds, where you include both the original mix and the remix?

We haven't gotten to that point. You know, that's something that maybe the record company might be interested in, in terms of their packaging - because they've come onboard. They will release it, but they're not interested in spending any money - and that's fine. We totally get that. That's not a problem at all. We don't mind financing it. But in terms of that kind of packaging, we haven't even gotten to that point yet. We're just focusing on trying to get this rolling as soon as we can.

Another upcoming item related to the tour is your plan to film an upcoming April show in Cleveland, Ohio. Can you talk a bit about the special place that city holds in the band's heart and history?

Well, certainly that was the breaking market for us. That's where Donna Halper, who was the program director at WMMS in 1974, got our first album on an import or as a point of curiosity from a friend here in Toronto who sent it down to her and said, "You should check it out. Maybe the Cleveland market, which is a pretty heavy, hard rock market, might be interested." And she played the record in an evening and it got great response and, you know, within days, we got an offer from Mercury Records to release the record. And that was the start of everything. And we did a number of gigs in those very early days in the Cleveland area, so it's very special. It's really where we emerged in America.
The other thing is, we've never done a live video recording in the U.S. And we've been all over the place - Europe, Canada, South America - but we've never done it in the U.S., and we really felt that it was time that we did do that. And what better place than Cleveland for us to put a special twist on it?

Tell me about the new Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess.

Well, it's very exciting. You know, we've been working on this for quite some time - a few years, really. The Axcess is a great platform, I think, because it has certain things that the traditional Les Paul doesn't. You know, the light weight, getting the vibrato arm on there, the changes that we made with the piezo pickups, the separate outputs - you know, it's a great utility guitar.
I looked at it in terms of, "What do I need? Instead of switching through 14 or 15 guitars during a show, how can I pare that down, like, where I can get everything - as much as I can - into one guitar?" And this is really what it is.
It's very playable. It's a little heavier, I think, than the traditional Axcess model is. The sustain is great. The tonality's great. We've gone through, I think, three generations of pickups to find the kind of windings that really suit the guitar. The vibrato system - the Floyd Rose - is obviously very solid.
The piezo sounds terrific. You can use it in different modes. You can use it off the main jack and just do a blend of both magnetic and piezo. Or you can do separate, which I would do with two radio packs - one for the magnetic pickups and one for the piezo.
It feels great and I think the finish is beautiful. We've got a nice, dark kind of tobacco sunburst and then this beautiful royal crimson that just looks so hot. So we're really, really excited about it.

It sounds like it was truly a collaborative process.

Yeah, absolutely it was. You know, everybody has been really on the bandwagon on this and it's nice to see. When I met you a year ago, I was there for a meeting and we talked about this guitar and the potential that it had. So was it exciting to see this develop and happen in the last year and getting the kind of support from all corners of Gibson Guitar.

You've now worked with the Custom Shop for a while. What are your thoughts on that whole set-up?

Well, I think it's great! I think you need to have that kind of thing - a premium wing of a company like Gibson. All the instruments are great. Like, I get lots of stuff from Gibson USA - in fact, I just got the latest robot from [the USA factory] and I absolutely love it. I'm having so much fun with it and, you know, really getting to learn that guitar.
But the kind of instruments they're making at Custom and just walking through the factory and seeing everybody working and how they take their craftsmanship so personally and proudly, it's really great to see that. The quality of instruments, I think, has come a long way. Gibson, obviously, has always been a fantastic instrument, but I see such a higher level of quality in the instruments that I'm getting. They're really ready to go as soon as I get them and I don't feel the need to really do any set-up time or anything like that. You know, perhaps, part of it is they're getting to know me (laughs) and know what I like, but just the workmanship is great. The ideas keep pouring out and, you know, everybody's always working on something. And you know, maybe that has something to do with Henry and the way he runs the company and the vision that he sees for it, too. We haven't met and I don't really know him that well, but I understand he's quite a colorful personality and is always excited by lots of new ideas.

One last thing. We did "The Greatest Riffs of All Time" poll on this past week and I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you for your thoughts on the greatest riff of all time.

Well, I have to know what the criteria is for that. Is it the most popular, the most sustaining riff?

Well, let's make it a combination of meaning to you, but something that has had wide impact on fans and guitarists.

Well, I would say there are two that are enduring. One would be 'Satisfaction,' 'cause that was the first time I heard anything on a guitar that just blew me away. You know, the distorted sound and a simple riff, but it had so much power and it was slick and it was sexy and it had all that stuff. And even when I hear it now, maybe it's because I make that connection to my youth, it still does that to me.
And 'Smoke on the Water. My God, everybody in the world recognizes and knows that riff and knows how to play it. So, I'd have to say those two would be probably at the top of that list.

Well, that's pretty good guessing, because that's #1 and #2. (laughs)

Is it really? (laughs) OK, well, yeah, there you go! Ha ha!

Photo credit: Andrew MacNaughton