In 2002, after weathering several years of emotional upheaval, the members of Rush found solace and uplift in creating Vapor Trails, their most powerful work in years.
Let’s throw the clock out the window on this project.” That, says Geddy Lee, was the goal when he and the other members of Rush— guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart—began work on Vapor Trails in 2001. The band’s 17th studio album, it was also the first new material the Canadian trio had produced since Test for Echo in 1996—a dry spell long enough to have left some fans worrying if the band was ever coming back.
It was a reasonable concern, given the personal trauma the group had been through. On August 10, 1997, a month after Rush had wrapped their Test for Echo tour with a triumphant, three-hour show in Ottawa, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Serena, was killed when her Jeep ran off the highway and crashed in Brighton, Ontario. Less than a year later, Peart’s wife, Jacqueline Taylor, was dead of cancer. In 1998, the band managed to assemble a live album, Different Stages, from the Test for Echo tour, but Rush were on an indefinite hiatus.
During that downtime, bassist Lee cut his first solo album, 2000’s My Favorite Headache, and Lifeson produced an album for a young Pennsylvania band called Lifer. Peart, meanwhile, maintained a low profile, traveling by motorcycle from Alaska to Mexico and trying to regain his emotional equilibrium. When the group finally got back together in January 2001 to begin work on a new Rush album, the members were, as Lee dryly notes, “in very independent head spaces.”
“We had a lot of musical reuniting to do,” he says. “There was a lot of air to clear, a lot of emotion floating around the control room. It took time to sort all those feelings out and get to a point where we could look at each other and know that our comments to each other—critical and otherwise—were being taken correctly.”
Although Lee worried at first that the three would end up “biting each others’ heads off,” the sessions turned out to be anything but acrimonious. It wasn’t just a matter of being sensitive to Peart’s situation; the work Lee and Lifeson had done outside of Rush had brought the two a new set of skills as well as newfound respect for each other’s abilities.
All of which is reflected in Vapor Trails, Rush’s strongest and most dynamic album in decades. While the album’s songwriting reflects the same melodic focus that pushed 1991’s Roll the Bones and 1993’s Counterparts into the Billboard Top 5, the playing is fiery and inventive. From the hell-bent-for-leather gallop of “One Little Victory” through the roiling interplay of “Peaceable Kingdom” to the deftly shifting textures of “Out of the Cradle,” the band plays brilliantly, marrying prog sophistication to punk intensity. All told, it’s Rush’s most radical stylistic shift since Moving Pictures, released two decades earlier.
Our interview with Lee and Lifeson took place at the Toronto offices of Rush’s Canadian label, Anthem Records. (Peart, understandably, decided to sit out this album’s interview cycle.) Despite having spent 13 months on Vapor Trails—more than twice as long as the group typically spends writing and recording—the two seemed relaxed, content and more than slightly proud of the work they’d done.
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Guitar Legends After 23 straight years of writing, touring and recording, you guys find yourselves in a situation where you haven’t played together in nearly four years. Not only that, but you were processing some pretty intense emotional experiences. How do you start working in a situation like that?
GEDDY LEE We talk. We talk a lot about what kind of music we want to write. That’s kind of the first thing, and I really think that without that conversation, none of the rest can follow. It takes us a while to really talk it through, and we do a lot of talking before we start writing anything. We talk about what kind of music we’re getting off on, about whether there is a direction we haven’t gone before…whatever.
Amazingly, we had few scraps or disagreements. There were a lot of discussions, but it was incredibly conciliatory. [laughs]
GL Was that because you’d gone so long without spending time together?
LEE I think it’s because there was a great deal of respect for each other. After all of the difficulties of the last number of years, when we came and looked at each other—and we looked at each other as friends—there was a great feeling of affection, because we had been there for each other through this tough time. And there was also a great respect for each other’s abilities. It kept us in a nice place. I don’t know how to describe it other than that.
ALEX LIFESON Yeah. Like Geddy says, we’ve been friends forever. When we started making Vapor Trails, I saw how much he’d grown through the experience of doing his own record. And that’s hard to do, a solo record. So much is on the line, and you’re responsible for everything. He came into this project with all this confidence and such an elevated sense of music. I felt for the first time in our whole working relationship that I could leave the room and trust him 100 percent. I was guided by a lot of things that he was doing. I pushed my ego back a little bit and pursued the things that I felt I had strength in.
Most of the arranging Ged did on his own. He’d say, “Leave it with me for a couple hours.” I’d go and play guitar or hang out. And every time I listened to something that he did, it was, “Yeah. Fuck, it’s perfect. That’s great.” I can’t tell you how great that felt, going home every night knowing that I didn’t have to worry about those things.
LIFESON I mean, our relationship just locked like this after the first couple of months.
LEE I don’t think we ever had such a solid partnership on any record. Maybe not since 2112 have we been able to understand each other, see each other clearly—our strengths and weaknesses. It was the same thing when Alex would say, “I want to do guitars tonight.” I would say, “Okay, check you later. Have fun.” And he would go, and he would just experiment, and we would talk about things the next day. And when Neil was getting all his drum parts together and starting to get his confidence back, Alex was there every minute, helping him get his drum sounds together, engineering the session. It was really incredibly hands-on, and we became each others’ producers. It was really cool that we could do that.
GL How did the writing start? Did anybody come in with stuff already written?
LEE No, we had a clean page, basically. We set up in a small—small-ish—studio. We set Neil up in the playing part of the room, and we had a writing setup in the control room. Plus Neil had a room that he could go in and work on lyrics. So as Alex and I were getting to know each other again, Neil was slowly getting his playing chops, because he had not played. He was well out of it and had to build up his hands, his physical endurance.
GL You say it was a “writing setup.” Did that mean you just sat around with acoustic guitars and a notebook?
LIFESON I had an amp set up in the studio, enclosed in a type of cabinet I use live, which we call “doghouses.” They’re lead-lined, completely isolated. I moved that into one of the isolation booths after a while and just opened up the cabinets. Geddy runs direct, and we used a drum machine for the writing process. And there are basically no keyboards on this record.
GL Wait a minute: isn’t that harpsichord on the beginning of “How It Is”?
LEE That’s mandola.
GL A mandola?
LIFESON It’s like a large mandolin. It’s got 10 strings. I just took it out one day and said, “Hey, how does this sound?” We got off on it so much that we started putting mandola on all sorts of songs. It just has that bell quality to it, and depending on how you tune it, you can bring out all kinds of different sympathetic notes and ringing and buzzing and all of that.
LEE He would play some of them by picking and some by rubbing the strings and creating kind of a shimmery sound. And we’d meld those together to give it kind of a unique tone.
Our basic setup in the writing system is to have everything sound as if we were making a record. We had a Logic Audio digital recording setup, so even when we were jamming, we were jamming over four or five tracks and keeping everything. Then we would listen back later and see if there were sparks there that could become something.
That was the goal: to create a comfortable writing environment so that when Alex and I jammed together and got off on it, we could make that into a song and keep the original performance if the sounds were good. A lot of times they were close, and close enough to say, “Well, the performance is more valuable than 10 more percent on the guitar sound, so let’s keep it.”
GL And with a computer-based system like Logic Audio, you can do all sorts of editing with those bits.
LEE Oh, yeah, you can do whatever. You can just take that and go crazy. Which I have a tendency to do.
LIFESON Thank god! [both laugh]
GL Okay, so you and Alex jam, and you take all the good bits and assemble them into basic tracks that eventually become songs. But it’s just music at that point. When do the lyrics come in, and how?
LEE What happens is, I get these bits of paper from Neil, with lyrical ideas. I read through them, and I either relate to them, or I’m inspired by them, or they leave me flat. And I kind of prioritize my pile accordingly. Then, after we jam, I’m attracted to certain things and I’ll just start constructing a song that way.
It’s really a question of what strikes me lyrically, because I have to sing these songs. I’ll sit down with some lyrics and go, “These lyrics are my script, and I have to make them come to life.” I’ll put a chordal structure together, and a melodic thing—just get lost in it, and try to express it.
Then sometimes it’s the other way around, where we’ve got these bits of music and think, Fuck! There’s nothing here in the lyrics that suits that. There’s a real strong vibe, there’s a song waiting to be born here, but it’s not going to be born with these lyrics. Then we’ll put it down on tape and give it to Neil. In which case, he’ll listen to it until he thinks he has something. It goes back and forth like that.
LIFESON Yeah. And that could take a long time. Months.
LEE On this record, it was exceedingly difficult to be happy with what we did, and I think a lot of that was because of the gap—six years between projects, plus all the emotional upheaval in everyone’s life. Particularly Neil’s life. Things had to move slowly on this project. I think we all realized that. You can’t control a rate of healing.
But I realized as we were mixing it that the longer you spend making a record, the harder it is to finish it. The more time you invest in something, the more important it feels. It’s just hard to have that casual attitude. [chuckles] The casualness goes away after you spend a year of your life on something.
GL Given the situation with Neil’s personal life, I’m sure a lot of fans are going to be looking for the tragic, life-has-stomped-downon- me song. But the closest thing to that I hear on the album is “Nocturne.”
LEE Well, “Nocturne,” “Ghost Rider,” “Sweet Miracle,” even “Secret Touch,” I think, are all related to some sort of realization. I think they’re all rooted in his experience and talk about his need and his ways of climbing out of it. For me, singing those lyrics, I have to be able to make them universal. I have to find a way in.
And that was a tough thing. That was a lot of going back and forth, and taking a personal experience and trying to accept it and understand it and want to express it, but in a way that felt good, felt right for me to sing and felt like there was enough in there so that someone else would not be weirded out by the intimacy of it.
GL It must be not just a balancing act but something you can’t do unless you are very comfortable with the other person.
LEE Yes. Exactly, exactly. And it was an amazing personal experience for the three of us, because of that.
GL Okay, so you and Alex assembled these jams and bits of melody, all while working to a click track. So when did you play with Neil?
LEE We didn’t. It was almost all pieced together.
GL You did the whole album to click track?
LEE We weren’t going to do that originally. We had set aside time to go back and play all this stuff live. Basically, Neil was learning the songs with a click track and just getting in shape, getting his parts together. But before we knew it, he had nailed them all. He was just nailing them.
So we would say, “Is there any value in playing this all over again live?” And we decided there wasn’t, because it was there. We were getting off on it. It sounded right— it didn’t sound overdubbed; it didn’t sound piecemeal.
GL In recent years, a lot of big-time alt-rock musicians, from Billy Corgan to the members of Stone Temple Pilots, have testified to the major role that Rush played in their musical upbringing. The complexities of your tunes and your arrangements have been a touchstone for a generation, and yet Rush get no props from the critical establishment. It’s like people just don’t want to give Rush their due.
LEE Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s that we’ve never really broken into the mainstream. We could be the world’s most popular cult band—like Black Sabbath, which to me was fairly mainstream metal when I was growing up.
GL Right. Everyone knew Black Sabbath’s music, but you wouldn’t hear it in a supermarket.
LEE And you wouldn’t hear us in the supermarket. Unless it was a really weird supermarket.
LIFESON I don’t know. I was in Canadian Tire awhile ago, just after Tool’s last album came out, and they were playing “Schism” in the Canadian Tire, which is like a big hardware store.
LEE But it’s Tool, and they sell tools. [laughs]
LIFESON Maybe that’s what it was! But I think Geddy’s right, and if we’ve influenced that generation of bands or musicians, it’s because they look at Rush and think, Well, here’s a band that wasn’t popular in a mainstream way, yet they’ve been around for 30 years. This is proof that we can stick to what we believe is right for us and not worry about radio or pressure from record companies.
LEE I think that’s what inspires bands. And, you know, our music has largely been players’ music, and a lot of bands are influenced because that’s how we all start out: as players. A lot of young players cut their teeth on our music because it’s hard to play, and yet it’s not jazz, so it’s still accessible.
There’s always been a bit of a bias against us from critics, because they just don’t get it, and maybe because they’re not players. They’ve thought our music was pretentious, that our reach exceeded our grasp, or whatever. Maybe the nature of our lyrics put them off.
GL One last question: Why no u in Vapor Trails? I mean, that would be the Canadian way to spell it.
LEE That’s an argument I was not prepared to have with Neil.
LIFESON Yeah, we were both on the u side, the proper English spelling.
LEE I used the u on my album, My Favorite Headache, for Britain and Canada: My Favourite Headache. But Neil tends to the U.S. He likes the simpler spellings. So I’d put the u in there, if it were left to me. But I’m not fighting for a u.