Interview: Rush Guitarist Alex Lifeson on 'Clockwork Angels'
You wrote out the string parts for “The Garden.” Does orchestration come easily to you?
Yeah, well, I don’t hate keyboards that much. [laughs] I hear melodies, and you know… you just figure it out. I don’t really think about it. I wouldn’t say that I played piano; I wouldn’t just sit down and play something on the piano. But when you’re working in Logic, you can develop your whole arrangement. I don’t know. I just hear things and do them.
What acoustic guitar are you using in “Halo Effect”? That’s a really beautiful sound.
That’s the [Gibson] J-150, the jumbo, and I have to tell you, Rich Chycki is such a great engineer, especially when it comes to acoustic sounds. I love that acoustic sound. I mean, it’s a great-sounding guitar, but I wouldn’t say it’s my best—I’ve got lots that I would use before that one. But when we got into the studio, for some reason, that one sounded amazing. It’s a mean-spirited guitar—its neck is constantly on the move. It frustrates me sometimes, but wow, it can really sound great.
There’s a section in that song where you guys become, for lack of a better term, a “power trio.” You just rock out old-school. What excites you still about performing as a three-piece?
It’s more challenging that way. It keeps us sharp, it keeps us on our toes, it keeps us moving forward. It is challenging to try to create as big a sound as I think we have, particularly live—you can do anything on record, of course. So when you come offstage, knowing that you nailed it, that’s an amazing feeling. On this next tour, we’re going to bring strings out with us because we’d like to have that real string sound with us onstage. In the past, we’ve used samples, but this time around we want the real thing. Plus, it’ll allow us to put real strings on some older songs. It’ll be a little strange to have other players onstage with us, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be really cool.
Your solo on “The Anarchist” has a bit of an Eric Johnson-y feel—that sweet, violin-like tone.
I have to think how I got that…[pauses] Well, I definitely used one of my Les Pauls. I think it was probably my ’59 through a Marshall, one of the Silver reissues. Those sound awesome! I used that Marshall for a lot of the record. I think Rich put some [Electro-Harmonix] Electric Mistress [flanger] and a little bit of phasing on it. It has a little bit of an Eastern character to it, kind of like the solo in “YYZ” and “We Hold On,” from the last record. I love that “Kashmir” kind of vibe.
I’m sure you used many different guitars on the album, but were there any that you would say were your go-to models?
Yeah, I would say my Axcess Model, the one that we developed at Gibson. It’s done really well, and I’m very happy with it. They had a request to do about 10 models in black—the guitar comes in a crimson finish and a sunburst finish—so they did one and they sent it to me to get my approval, and it’s one of the best-sounding guitars I have. As soon as I plugged it in, it sounded great on everything. It’s got character and clarity, it’s ballsy but clear—I ended up using it on a lot of the album. I also used my ES-355, the ’58 and ’59 Les Pauls…and my PRS 12-string. Let’s see, I used my Ricky 12 on the opening of “The Wreckers.”
I know there are notes for all of this, but those were the main guitars. I had every guitar I own in the studio. I love setting them all up and having them all around my station and in the control room. They all want to be there; the whole family wants to be with me. Even if they don’t get used, they like to hang out with their cousins. [laughs] They like to mingle and be part of things. But I didn’t do all that much layering of guitar tracks. It was really about the basic rockiness of the songs, so it was a lot of double-tracking and beefing things up. I kept things as simple as I could, which had a lot more impact.
We were talking earlier about the change in your audience. For so long, Rush were the underdogs. You were a “people’s band,” but the critics hated you. Things are different now: Rush are cool.
[laughs] Oh yeah, things are quite different. You know, I never would have complained about the way things were. We still had a great deal of success and sold a lot of records. I liked the little bit of anonymity that we had; our lives were a little more private. We could pretty much go anywhere and not get recognized, unless it was by a true Rush fan. That’s all changed. Well, I mean, it’s not like we’re hugely popular. [laughs] I’m not complaining.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: I mean, everybody knows you guys should be in by now. Does it bother you that you’re not? Do you care?
I really don’t care. I look at it like this: Last week we received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, which is a very high honor in Canada. And we were also inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame, and all those sorts of things. So, in that sense, I’m quite satisfied with those accolades, particularly the Governor General’s Award. That puts us in the company of some of the greatest Canadian creative minds of the last 20 years, since they started this.
I really don’t feel the need to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because, at the end of the day, it’s just somebody’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have a particular process, and they’re welcome to do it however they want to do it. If they feel that they want to exclude a certain genre or certain bands from their hall of fame, they’re welcome to do it. I don’t need to be in there. I have no interest in going there. I think that so long as we keep this relationship, we probably both benefit. If Rush is not in there, the controversy continues, and it keeps Rush fans very pissed-off. There’s some great bands in there that I really respect. Just recently, it was great to see the Chili Peppers get in—I love those guys. But I don’t need it. I have no interest in going, and hope that we never will.
If I was a Rush fan, I’d be like, “No man, don’t do it. Let’s keep this to ourselves, this little special thing.”
Photo: F. Scott Schafer