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.

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.

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

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.