Rush: Vital Signs
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2007
As Rush drop their latest release, Snakes & Arrows, guitarist Alex Lifeson reflects back on Moving Pictures, the prog-rock masterpiece that gave life to the power trio’s legend.
If you were a teenage male in the Seventies, the chances are very good that you had long hair and a wispy moustache and went to rock concerts with a doobie in your back pocket. And the chance is even better that the band you went to see was Rush. Back in their heyday, guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart effected a Jedi warrior sci-fi look straight out of the then-newly released Star Wars film. No doubt the first image you glimpsed of Lifeson was that of a mythical-looking rock god with a blond Prince Valiant do, resplendent in satin scarves and capes and wielding his Alpine White Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck on such space-rock classics as “Xanadu” (no, not the Olivia Newton-John hit, although that would have been interesting). Lifeson cut quite a figure in those halcyon days, especially when bathed in orange-and-yellow lights as he soloed before a backdrop of the “starman” logo taken from the back cover of Rush’s science-fiction opus, 2112.
But the Alex Lifeson who sits before me in the Guitar World offices bears not a soupcon of that enigmatic, angelic presence. “I feel like I have little connection to that person at all,” he says, between sips of bottled water. Now 53, he’s still blond, though his close-cropped hair is flecked with gray. “And I’ve lost some in the back,” he says, leaning forward to display the lamentable evidence of male-pattern baldness. “I couldn’t grow that Peter Frampton hair again if I tried. Come to think of it, Peter Frampton can’t grow Peter Frampton hair anymore!”
Refreshingly devoid of rock-star vanity (“Rush has never been a band of pin-ups, thank God!”), Lifeson brims with good cheer and is big on eye contact. “It’s a fabulous time in my life,” he says. “In July I'm going to be a grandfather again, which thrills me to no end.” (Lifeson already has one grandchild from his second son, Justin.) “It might not be very rock and roll of me to say, but I love being a grandfather. Love it, love it, love it.”
He pauses briefly, becoming reflective. “The thing is, I don’t take anything for granted anymore—my family, my music, you name it. Unfortunately, it took Neil’s tragedies to teach me that.”
The tragedies he’s referring to are almost unbearable to consider. In 1997, Peart's daughter and only child, 19-year-old Selena Taylor, was killed in a car accident. Less than a year later, his common-law wife of 22 years, Jaqueline Taylor, succumbed to cancer. “Neil was 44 years old and his life was over,” Lifeson says softly. “How do you come back from that? Geddy and I didn’t know what to do, other than to be there for him and give him his space.”
As it turned out, Peart needed a lot of space. Music, which had always been the drummer’s anodyne, offered little solace. “Neil told us, ’Consider me retired,’” says Lifeson, “and in a way, we had to take him at his word.” Peart set out on a two-year, 55,000-mile motorcycle trip back and forth across North America (documented in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road). Eventually, his travels took him to Los Angeles, where he met his future wife, photographer Carrie Nuttall. The two married on September 9, 2000. Not long after, Peart called his band mates to tell them he was ready to give music another go.
“We were thrilled for Neil on so many levels,” says Lifeson, “and of course we were ecstatic that he wanted to get the band back together. But it was tough. He hadn’t touched the drums in years, and when he finally sat down at the kit, I’d say he was one-tenth the drummer he used to be—still pretty great, but there was a long way to go. However, we weren’t putting any time restrictions on him. When he was ready, so were we.”
In 2002, Rush released Vapor Trails, their first album in six years. A brave, although at time tentative album, it saw the band embracing, as always, odd meters (the song “Freeze” alternates between 6/4, 5/4 and 4/4) but eschewing keyboards and guitar solos. “We felt the record should be as natural as possible,” says Lifeson. “We were learning to be a band again. That can be hard to do when you’re getting on in years and you’ve been through hell.”
A middle-aged Rush needn't be a bad Rush, and the band’s bold new album, Snakes & Arrows (Atlantic), should be greeted with hosannas by the faithful. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz, who helmed the Foo Fighters' One by One and In Your Honor, it sees the Canadian trio stoically refusing to become part of the ancien regime of prog-rock. The slamming, riff-heavy first single “Far Cry” immediately joins the ranks of Rush's finest pop offerings. Interestingly, however, the record's most rewarding moments are also its most frustrating. On acoustic-based tracks such as “The Larger Bowl” and “The Main Monkey Business,” Rush provide the musical answer to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's theory of filmmaking—that a story must have a beginning, a middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. “Workin' Them Bones” features some of Peart's most heartfelt, straight-forward lyrics (“No one gets to heaven without a fight”—hey, he knows). As sung by Geddy Lee, whose upper-register wail has deepened with age, the words hit you where you live.
Snakes & Arrows serves up a veritable smorgasbord of Alex Lifeson guitar styles, but perhaps the biggest surprise is “The Way the Wind Blows,” in which he displays his penchant for pure, unadulterated blues soloing. “That's probably the last thing people expect from me, which is why I did it,” Lifeson explains. “When I hear that sound, I feel like we're a new band, just like we were when we made Moving Pictures. You know, people didn't expect that sound from us either.”
Moving Pictures. An intoxicating, exhilarating marriage of planetarium-like prog-rock madness and new wave spunk. It's been 26 years since the release of the synapse-altering album that introduced Rush to the mainstream, and Lifeson marvels at its longevity. “It’s become one of those ’Desert Island Discs’ to a lot of people,” he says, “which is a huge compliment. I’m very proud of that record. And to be quite honest, if we never made Moving Pictures, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking about our new album. Certain records are epochal; they’re a zeitgeist unto themselves. For us, Moving Pictures was it. Hopefully, we’ll have a few more.”
GUITAR WORLD Before we talk about the new record, let’s revisit Moving Pictures. While recording it, did you have the slightest idea how popular it could be?
ALEX LIFESON Not at all. Did we think we were doing great work? Absolutely. But you never think, In 26 years this album will still be selling 15,000 copies a week. No way.
GW At the time, how influenced were you by new wave? Many of the songs on the album are short and poppy, at least by Rush standards, and your guitar sounds bear certain similarities to that of Andy Summers.
LIFESON I was very influenced, in many ways. I cut my hair! [laughs] That shocked a lot of our longtime fans who were used to my long, flowing locks. Also, I started dressing cooler, more au courant, wearing bright, colorful blazers and ties. I didn't look like I'd just come from a Renaissance fair. [laughs]
It was time for all of us to change, musically, visually—our entire attitude. The songs got shorter, more accessible. It felt good to become a bit of a new band. We were listening to the Police, and their impact was huge. We saw that a rock trio could do so many different things.
GW However, a hint of that impact was apparent on Permanent Waves—the reggae break in “The Spirit of Radio”—and on “Vital Signs,” from Moving Pictures.
LIFESON Yep. That was early Police influence. Their rhythms, their sounds… It was as exciting as when Cream came out. For us, it was a matter of using those new wave influences in ways that enhanced, but didn't degrade, what we were doing.
There was the Edge too. What he did with the echo pedal is beyond measure. Yeah, the Edge and Andy Summers were very high on my list in those days. Still are.
GW What's interesting is, in 1981, both Rush and the Police became enamored with synthesizers: Rush on Moving Pictures, and the Police on Ghost in the Machine.
LIFESON Great minds think alike. [laughs] When Geddy got into keyboards, it just seemed like a natural progression. We were trying to expand our sonic palette. Like the Police, we didn’t want to be limited by the power trio paradigm.
GW It must have been hard for Geddy to play both bass and keyboards at the same time. Did you ever think of adding a fourth member?
LIFESON No, never. Geddy had everything under control, even though he had to be a bit of an octopus at times. I was operating foot pedals too. God, I had to dance around like crazy.
GW You're just a bunch of Fred Astaire–type multitasking fools, huh?
LIFESON You said it! [laughs] If there was a harder way of doing things, that's what we did. But while making Moving Pictures, I remember thinking to myself, The guitar is pretty much the dominant sound of the band, so why am I working so hard at it? Using effects and making my sound more processed enabled me to explore space and different textures; it freed up our sound and, more importantly, our songwriting. It was a very fun time. You have to understand, we'd done the 20-minute science fiction opuses. It was getting boring.
GW Even so, Rush have always been labeled as “cerebral” rockers—that is to say, not Van Halen. Did that ever bother you?
LIFESON No. [laughs] My God, no. The fact that we don’t write songs about getting laid on Sunday night? That’s never been us.
GW Wait a minute: who gets laid on a Sunday night? That's back-to-work night!
LIFESON Now there's an idea we might be able to explore. [laughs] No, but see, even though we have no problem with the rock and roll lifestyle, Rush have always been about musicianship. If that makes us “cerebral,” fine. Also, I think as Neil has developed a lyricist, our music became more poignant. The thing about Rush is, we have fun, even though we look like we're not. [laughs]
GW Did having a big hit with Permanent Waves add to any pressure while recording of Moving Pictures?
LIFESON Not at all. We were cruising! We had the wind at our backs and we were having fun. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of our most famous records: people can tell when a band is on fire, and we were, boy.
GW What guitars did you use on the album?
LIFESON My mainstays: a Gibson ES-335, a 355, my Howard Roberts Fusion guitar and my Sportscaster, which is a Strat that I modified with humbuckers, a Floyd Rose and a Shark neck. The body is the one Strat component that remained.
GW Tell me about the solo in “Tom Sawyer.” How long did that take to work out?
LIFESON I winged it. [to my astonished face] Honest! I came in, did five takes, then went off and had a cigarette. I'm at my best for the first two takes; after that, I overthink everything and I lose the spark. Actually, the solo you hear is comped. Most of my solos are comps, now that I think of it.
In truth, yes, I had an idea of what I'd play, but I don't get married to ideas for solos during the writing; that's how performances gets sterile and formulaic. Of course, the irony is, once I record a solo, that's what I wind up having to play the rest of my life! [laughs]
GW Anybody's who's listened to the radio for the past 26 years knows the opening riff to “Limelight.” That's one of those it's-so-simple-it's-genius licks.
LIFESON Thanks. I got lucky that day. How these riffs appear is a mystery. I remember that we had the song pretty much mapped out, and there is a pre-chorus section where I play chords that are very much like the riff. I think what I ended up doing was just simplifying it for the opening. We knew we needed to kick the song off somehow.
It's funny: after all these years, the solo to “Limelight” is my favorite to play live. There's something very sad and lonely about it; it exists in its own little world; and I think, in its own way, it reflects the nature of the song's lyrics—feeling isolated amidst chaos and adulation.
GW “YYZ” has gone on to become one of the band’s best-loved instrumentals.
LIFESON And that came from just jamming. As you might know, the initials “YYZ” is a transmitter code for the Toronto International Airport, and what we did was open the song in a 10/8 rhythm, which is actually Morse code for those initials. It’s a weird thing: People expect Rush to have an instrumental on every album—I guess because we’re known as “musician’s” musicians—but that’s not how we operate. Neil can usually make lyrics fit any kind of rhythm or chord arrangement, so for us to turn a song into an instrumental, it has to be because we feel that’s what the song is meant to be.
GW Let's talk about the new album, Snakes & Arrows. Aside from his hard-to-pronounce last name, what made you decide to work with producer Nick Raskulinecz?
LIFESON Well, that was the reason: his name. [laughs] I relate to him, for obvious reasons [Lifeson's given surname is Zivojinovich]. Originally, we talked to a few producers, but the vibe wasn't there—not totally. And then I guess Nick heard we were getting close to recording, and he told his management, “I've gotta do it! No matter what, I have to work with Rush. Get me a meeting!” Crazy, genuine enthusiasm: we'll take it. [laughs]
Nick flew up and met with Geddy and me. He had such exuberance and true passion for making music—a real thoughtful guy whose energy was infectious. Geddy and I looked at each other, and we could tell we'd have a good time working with him. And we were right: there wasn't a single moment of tension or stress throughout the recording; every day was a joy to go to work.
GW But is that necessarily a good thing for making an album? Doesn't a little dramatic tension push you out of comfort zones and into unexplored areas?
LIFESON I know what you mean. One doesn't want to feel too contented; you have to feel challenged by the music. But Nick did push us, sometimes in ways we never expected.
GW How did he push you as a guitarist?
LIFESON [very long pause] This is tough… See, I was so focused—I'm not saying the other guys weren't—but because this album was written on the acoustic, I was so hot going in. You know how we talked about Moving Pictures and how I'd play solos cold? This record was the exact opposite: I knew exactly what I wanted. Writing a lot of the songs on the acoustic offered me a wonderful way to sketch out the album; I knew that if everything worked on the acoustic, everything would be ten times more powerful on the electric.
GW Do you guys cut proper demos before recording the actual album?
LIFESON Oh yeah. Our demos sound like pretty good records. Geddy has a Logic recording system in the writing room in his house, and we go in there and work things out. By the way, he lives five minutes away from me. Can you believe that after 40 years we live so close together?
Anyway, we have a great system for writing: we work three days a week from noon till six o'clock; then we play tennis or hang out with our families. A lot of times we go out to dinner after our writing sessions and talk about what we've done. A very relaxed pace.
We tracked the record at this wonderful place called Allaire Studios in the Catskills. It's a great studio with tremendous views of the mountains. Very inspiring. Nick came up and threw himself into the situation. A few songs we didn't touch at all, some songs we moved a few things around, and there was one song called “Spindrift” that we made radical changes to. We were very impressed with Nick: he wasn't afraid to tell us that we had the song all wrong. Most producers are afraid to do that with name bands. Also, he allowed us to rerecord anything we wanted, as many times as we wished. A lot of producers these days just want to Pro Tools parts together.
GW Obviously you have a pantload of guitars. How many did you bring to the studio?
LIFESON [laughs] A “pantload”…that's funny. I didn't bring too many, actually. My acoustics were a Gibson J-55, a Larrivée, and I also used Garrison six- and 12-strings. As far as electrics, I think I mainly used my Tele, my ES-335 and this fantastic Les Paul Goldtop reissue I have. I tried to keep things relatively… simple.
GW As you said, the dominant sound on the album comes from acoustic guitars.
LIFESON Yeah. I was playing a lot of acoustic before making the record and my heard was stuck in that world. Plus, I had recently seen [Australian fingerpicker] Tommy Emmanuel and [harp guitarist] Stephen Bennett perform, and I was very taken with what they were doing. In fact, Stephen gave me a half capo, which I'd never seen before, and I thought it was really cool. You can move it around but still have open strings. What an awesome little thing! I used it on the song “Bravest Face.”
GW “Far Cry” has a very strong riff. How did that come about?
LIFESON Geddy and I were jamming, and one day I found myself playing it. [laughs] Again, that's the magic of making music: One day you have nothing, and the next, it's all there. I feel as though it really can't be explained.
GW I expected a big solo on that song, but instead you went for a feedback section.
LIFESON Yeah, I heard these sirens in my head, so that's what I decided to do. Geddy plays the riff underneath the feedback. Another song where there's no solo is “Workin' Them Angels,” and what happened was, I originally recorded a solo over this section of very Celtic-sounding mandolins. It was a cool solo, nothing wrong with it, but just before we mixed the album, I called Nick and said I didn't think the solo was necessary, that it sounded better with just the mandolins. I was prepared for a big disagreement, but Nick was like, “Dude! Absolutely. I was thinking the very same thing.” [laughs] I hate to disappoint guitar fans who are waiting for solos, but sometimes you just don't need them.
GW However, you do play a beautiful solo in “The Larger Bowl.” What guitar are you using on that?
LIFESON That's my Tele. There are a lot of acoustics underneath, so when we play the song live, I might have to trigger samples so it doesn't sound as naked when I do the solo.
GW The instrumental “The Main Monkey Business” is, for the most part, a real acoustic opus. Was that your song that you brought to the other guys?
LIFESON No, not really. We wanted to do an instrumental that had some real substance, but we were getting pretty deep into finishing the record. So one day we started jamming, and the song started to emerge. At first, it was extremely complicated—it probably had about twelve different parts to it—and Nick really helped us whack it down and simplify it. The only problem is, to play the song live I might have to bring out the double-neck. I think I can put piezos in it to approximate the 12-string acoustic sound. [rolls his eyes] Man, I dread it though; that thing weighs a ton! You feel it the next day in your neck and shoulders. Maybe I'm just getting old.
GW You guys have been together for so long. Tell me, have you ever had a good slugfest?
LIFESON [laughs] No, no, no. But it's come close. We don't always see eye to eye; we squabble. Back in the old days when we were touring 10 or 12 months out of the year, my God, you get sick of each other. The slightest little thing one guy does can just set you off. But at those times when we do fight, five minutes later we're saying, “Shit, I'm sorry, man.” We love each other, we love hanging out together, and we really love playing music together—after all these years!