Interview: Rush Guitarist Alex Lifeson on 'Clockwork Angels'
Going back to the whole “singles versus albums” thing, bands used to do that all the time in the Sixties. The Beatles, the Stones, the Who and so on—there would be singles between albums, sometimes two 45s before a full-length.
Yeah, exactly! The album was the convenient package for all those singles, where you could get them all at once.
I was talking to Nick Raskulinecz, who told me that what he wanted from this record was to hear “full, unbridled Rush.” Okay, good phrase, nice goal, but how do you as a band respond to such a wish?
Well, we always think we are just like that! [laughs] The interesting thing with Nick is, he’s a great producer, with great instincts and terrific ears. He’s very smart. He’s so animated and enthusiastic in the studio—a great cheerleader. It’s all part of the package that a producer needs to be.
There’s no bullshit with Nick, no games or ego-stroking or anything like that. You’re in there, you’re working, and you’re having fun—those are the things that are important to Nick. Recording and being around music is an absolute joy for him.
He’s an old Rush fan. He was young when he was first introduced to the band’s music, and because of that he’s able to remind us of all the things that impacted him about Rush when he was a kid—all those golden memories and those spontaneous moments when you got attracted to a band and you felt like a loyal, dedicated fan. He reminds us not to forget where we came from, even though we want to evolve at this late stage in our career. We’re still looking to move forward, and Nick, by way of keeping us aware of our past, is able to push us to new places.
Nick was pushing you guys to make a concept album, wasn’t he?
Oh, yeah! When we were making Snakes & Arrows, I don’t know how many times he said, “Dude! Next time around: concept piece, five-disc set. It’ll be awesome!” [laughs] We aughed it off, because we’d already been there, but he got us thinking: Hey, you know, it’s been a while since we did something like that; maybe now is the time again… We started thinking in those terms of making that dynamic piece that goes from front to back.
Nick said that some of your solos on the album are from the demos.
That’s true. “Clockwork Angels” and “The Garden” were both demos. They’re two of my favorite solos. There’s something about them, to my ear, that really connects to the songs and the emotions. It was really interesting to hear how Neil played his drum parts around my phrasing. Usually, I’m picking up those rhythmic messages from him, but because the solos were on from the demo stage, it was the other way around.
I just love some of the little accents Neil does to my little accents. It’s funny—those were throwaway solos. A lot of times that happens. Ged and I did a lot of work in this writing room he has in his house. It’s pretty cozy and comfy, and we drink tons of coffee and work…not too hard. [laughs] But one day Ged was out, so I spent about 15 minutes on both of those solos, getting sounds, running them down a few times, and what I think happens is that you get used to them. You can’t really hear them another way.
And then you start chasing the demo…
Right, which can be very frustrating. You get “demo-itis,” a very serious disease that affects all recording musicians. But at the end of the day, if it works compositionally and musically, why not use the demo? I’ll always attempt to get a great take in the studio, but if the demo is better, then that’s that.
Let’s get into some of the songs. The opening of “The Wreckers” has such a cool, mid-Sixties Who vibe, very “The Kids Are Alright.”
Yeah, exactly. The whole song has that, but especially during the D in the opening, that strumming.
The whole dynamic of the song, the different feel—was that a result of you and Geddy changing instruments while writing?
Yeah, absolutely. We had a little bit of a break because of some technical difficulties in the control room, so Ged and I wandered over to the other control room and started talking to Nick. Ged picked up one of my guitars that was tuned to a Nashville tuning, and he started playing. Then he went back to the other room, grabbed some lyrics, came back and said, “Hey, listen to this.” He played the verse and sang the lyrics, and it sounded beautiful. I said, “Oh my God, that’s awesome! We’ve got to get to work on that.” So as soon as the other room was fixed, we went in, I picked up the bass and played to what Ged was doing. He looked at me and said, “That’s amazing! I never would have played it that way.” We both saw the song with these new perspectives.
We wanted to record it that way, thinking that live we’d switch instruments, too. But when we got to the recording, the song had evolved so much that the sweet strumming he was doing on the Nashville was replaced by some very fast strumming.
So we used our own main instruments, but I basically played his part, and he used my bass arrangement. It was very cool, not only that we would switch instruments and write the song that way but also that we would respect each other enough to continue with the arrangements that each of us had written. That’s how far our relationship has come. We’ve always had a good relationship, and it gets deeper and deeper with each record. On this record, we were really unified. It was the best writing experience that I’ve ever had, by far.
“Carnies” has some appropriately wild carnival sounds. What effects did you use on that?
In the choruses, when you get that real carnival sense, I used one of the plug-ins, Guitar Rig 5. I don’t remember the actual sampled sound; I’m going to have to go back to the earlier versions in Logic to find out—which I’m going to have to do anyway for when we play the song live.
But there was this one that had a very funny tremolo, kind of square edged, and all I did was put it on the guitar part that I played. So it’s really that three-chord progression that repeats itself, and it’s got this secondary effect on it that goes in and out, and it’s almost like a carousel. Ged and I were like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool!” It really sounds like you’re on this horsey going up and down.