Interview: Rush Guitarist Alex Lifeson on 'Clockwork Angels'
Since they became a hot live ticket in the late Seventies, Rush have had little trouble filling the arenas and EnormoDomes of the world. But in the past few years, Alex Lifeson has noticed a change in their audience, and it’s not a subtle one. “We’re reaching a lot more young kids and teens,” he says. “You look out and see all these new faces, kids with their parents. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to see your music going from generation to generation.”
What’s more, the demographic for Rush—for decades an exclusive club dominated by males only—has shifted. Now women accompany their husbands and boyfriends to concerts. And they’re going willingly, too. They’re as familiar with “The Temples of Syrinx” as with “Limelight.” “We’ve always had some female fans, but not that many,” Lifeson says. “I think the reason we have more now might have something to do with the documentary [2010’s Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage]. Women watched it and realized that we’re family guys, we’re married, we’ve got kids, we’ve been through lots of ups and downs—all of that stuff that made us relatable to them. A lot of married women and moms connected with that.”
Surprisingly, Rush have expanded their fan base without compromise. “We’re still the same quirky cult band we always were,” Lifeson says. The group’s new album, Clockwork Angels, best exemplifies this sentiment. It’s a work as daring, unconventional and idiosyncratic as anything Rush have ever done. It’s a concept album, harkening back to the band’s robes-and-lasers halcyon days of 2112 and Hemispheres, with a storyline conjured up by drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, one based in a dystopian steampunk world and fusing sources such as Joseph Conrad, Voltaire and Daphne Du Maurier. Despite its narrative conceit, Clockwork Angels is never overly stylized and doesn’t get bogged down by clunky plot devices: the music moves the story.
Chops-worshipping fans have long heralded Lifeson, Peart and bassist-singer Geddy Lee for their supreme instrumental skills, but the intriguing thing about Rush—and it’s as true on Clockwork Angels as it’s ever been—is the way they deliver the goods without infantilizing their musicianship. Their razzle-dazzle never seems as if it’s tossed off to satisfy some demand for immediate gratification; it has grace and purpose. Produced by the band and Nick Raskulinecz (the same team that yielded 2007’s Snakes & Arrows), the record is more complexly beautiful than anything they’ve ever done, yet it’s filled with a warm, human spirit, which makes its grand themes richer.
Clockwork Angels got its start in 2010 when Rush recorded the marvelously propulsive songs “Caravan” and “B2UB” in Nashville with Raskulinecz before heading out on their nearly year-and-a-half-long Time Machine tour. The real work commenced in the fall of 2011, when the gang reconvened, this time in Toronto, to write and record the bulk of the album.
“Doing the tour after putting out those two songs gave us a lot of time to think about what the record should be,” Lifeson says. “We found that we were playing really great on tour, so we wanted something that was bold, stripped down, in-your-face—the real sound of us as a three-piece. We wanted it to be a real hard rock record in the classic sense. And I really think we did just that.”
You’re understandably very happy with the album, but at what point did you know that you had nailed it? Did you have to let it all sink in?
You know, it’s a funny thing. You’re so focused on a record the whole time you’re making it. The writing, the recording, the horror of mixing—you’re constantly second-guessing yourself. It can drive you crazy; you’re under the microscope so much. So when it’s all finished, after it’s mastered and everything is ready, it’s important to step away from it for a month or so and then listen to it. That’s what I did, and it allowed me to be very much at peace. Then I was very happy with it.
Clockwork Angels is an album that’s meant to be experienced in full. This flies in the face of the music business in 2012, where the emphasis is on singles.
People are getting away from the whole album experience, it’s true. I think that’s sad. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m an old fart. [laughs] But I can’t help it—albums are what I grew up with, and I still love them.
And on top of everything, this is a concept album.
Well, you see, we’ve always been a little contrarian, I think. It is a concept record. We haven’t done something like this in a while. All of our albums are thematic, but this is a little more direct. I think the songs stand on their own, though. I can listen to them independent of the story, but when I hear everything from front to back, it really makes sense to me. The songs are linked by some really nice musical moments, which makes it very cinematic. So it works on lot of levels.
Before we started doing any recording, we sort of committed ourselves to doing a concept piece, and that part of it really was up to Neil. For Ged and me, we were going to do our music anyway. Neil had to start thinking a certain way, dedicating himself to a concept and jumping into it.
We got lyrics very early on before the last tour. We had five songs written, at which point Neil had an idea of what the concept would be. What happened was, when we went into the studio to record “Caravan” and “B2UB” to take on the road with us, it gave Neil some time to formulate the story and get it into his head. By the time we got back into writing, he redid a lot of the lyrics and changed the direction of the story. It evolved over a period of time. And then, of course, when we attacked the new music, we went into a different direction ourselves.
It was pretty cool. We’ve never done something like that, spreading everything out over a long period of time. I kind of like the idea of releasing singles in terms of going into the studio guerilla-like, putting them out, going on the road with them. You’re constantly updating the songs.