Interview: Alex Lifeson Discusses Rush's Rock Hall of Fame Induction and Deluxe Reissue of '2112'
Despite an intensely devoted fan base and decades of massive success, Rush have been, for much of their career, regarded as the World’s Least-Hip Rock and Roll Act—the band of choice for adolescent boys mesmerized by 20-minute prog-rock epics, extravagant drum solos, and lyrics filled with tales of snow dogs, warring trees and French national holidays.
In the past few years, however, Rush have come to be cast in a more laudatory light. They've been embraced by Hollywood on television shows like Freaks and Geeks and in films like I Love You, Man, and the band members — guitarist Alex Lifeson, vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart — autographed Stephen Colbert’s hand during an appearance on The Colbert Report.
They have also been praised by a host of bold-name musicians and music fans—from Billy Corgan and Kirk Hammett to Jack Black and South Park co-creator Matt Stone — in the award-winning 2010 documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
Now, in what could be viewed as perhaps the final step in their mainstream image rehabilitation, Rush will this year be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, honoring in a very public way the myriad commercial and artistic achievements of the band’s almost 40-year recording career. In that respect, it is also a fitting time for them to reissue their 1976 prog-rock classic, 2112, which represents a landmark moment in their commercial and artistic development.
Prior to recording 2112, did it really feel like the end was near for Rush? It’s been said that you took to calling the Caress of Steel tour the “Down the Tubes tour.”
That is how we were referring to it. And it definitely felt that way at the time. That was a very difficult tour. We were already extremely in debt, and it was just getting worse and worse. The crowds were getting smaller and there didn’t seem to be much interest in the album at the time. Everybody around was concerned about what the future was going to be. So there was a lot of reflection. I thought, Well, you know, I guess I could be a plumber again if I had to…
As the story goes, prior to your recording 2112, Rush’s manager, Ray Danniels, and your longtime producer, Terry Brown, actually met with your label, Mercury, and led them to believe that you were going to return to a more straightforward rock sound.
[laughs] Of course they did! I’m sure they were saying things like that right up to the delivery of the record. They probably were like, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be great! It’ll be awesome!” But as the record was coming together we all truly were very excited about it. I don’t know if we thought we had quite what we ended up with, but we did feel it was something special.
Did Mercury every put any specific demands on you to return to a more commercial sound?
Not really. The essence of our deal was a production deal, so we were responsible for delivering the record, the artwork — everything — in its completed form. It was really up to us. But they did lament the fact that we seemed to no longer have the same interests as we had initially. And they were concerned about that. Of course they were concerned about that—they had invested a lot of money and time and effort in us. And they wanted only what was best for the band, which was for us to make them a lot of money! And that’s fine. They’re a business and that’s what they do. I get it. That’s okay. Truthfully, I think it lit a fire under us.
The actual song “2112” was the most involved piece you had done up to that point. How did it come together?
We entered the studio with that song in pretty close to final form. Or at least it was in pen sketches rather than pencil. But the truth is, we didn’t really have the time available to us to go in the studio and write and record a record like we do now. A lot of “2112” was written in the back seat of a car and in cold dressing rooms while on tour in northern Ontario. Then it was just a matter of preparing ourselves and getting all the material ready. Then we’d go into the studio, spend a week recording and mixing, and that was it. You get back out on the road. I think the whole 2112 album took somewhere around a week to do.
That’s very quick. But we were recording live for the most part. Back then, you only had eight tracks. We might have had 16 by the time of 2112, but there wasn’t a lot of space on those tracks. So you tried to record as much as you could in one go. We did the basic tracks live off the floor, which is really how we recorded right up through [1982’s] Signals.
What was your setup?
I played mostly my [Gibson] ES-335, and I know I borrowed a friend’s Strat, which you can hear on things like “Discovery” [Part III of “2112”]. So I had those two electrics in the studio with me, and then for the acoustic parts I had a Gibson Hummingbird that I borrowed from that same friend. For amps, I had a Fender Twin and a Marshall 50-watt and 100-watt. I’m sure I had a couple Marshall cabinets as well. My pedals were a Maestro Phase Shifter and Echoplex, and a Cry Baby wah.