Vintage Interview: Rush’s Alex Lifeson from 1996
In my career, I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting musicians. But since many of the magazines and websites that originally published those stories aren’t around anymore, I’ve decided to pull some of these lost interviews out of my archive.
The following interview with Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson took place in July of 1996, at his home outside Toronto, when the band were gearing up to release their album Test For Echo. Parts of this interview were used in a piece I did on him for the music magazine Huh.
(You can also read my interview with Rush’s Geddy Lee, which was done for the same article, here.)
You have some pretty elaborate rose bushes.
I talk to the roses, and I trim them back. They’re really rewarding in a way, they look so beautiful and they smell great. But you have to really spent time with them.
What about when you tour?
Well, we’re out in October, so if this winter’s anything like last winter, there’ll already be five feet of snow. Everything will be finished by then.
You guys took some time off between your last album [Counterparts] and the new one, Test For Echo. Geddy spent the time with his family, you spent it recording your solo album, Victor. What did Neil do?
We don’t know for sure [laughs]. Ged and I have known each other for a long time, since junior high. Neil sort of travels a lot. Ged and I have this relationship that’s been long lasting, so in the time off we’d get together and play tennis or go have lunch, or at least just talk a couple times a week. With Neil it’s a little different. The tour ends, and I might get a fax from Neil on my birthday, and then that’s about it for a year. I think I only saw Neil a couple of times in the whole break that we had. He’s got a million things on his agenda that he likes to go, and he wants to do. He’s into motorcycling now, so he’s been doing all these cross-country motorcycle trips. I think he just did one across Tunisia. So in the time off he did a whole bunch of things. We’re just not sure what they are.
You obviously worked with other musicians when you made Victor. But you guys haven’t done that much within the context of Rush. The only thing I can think of was when you had Aimee Mann sing on “Time Stand Still” and “Open Secrets” on Hold Your Fire. How come you don’t do that more?
There’s a chemistry that exists between the three of us, and I don’t know if having other people on stage with us would disrupt that. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. But we’ve never felt that there’s been a big enough hole to do that. We’ve always put the pressure on ourselves to make up for anything extra on an album.
Going back to the break, what effect did that have on you and your playing?
I finished Victor the second week of September, had two weeks off, and then we started this album. So I had been playing all year, I was very confident about my playing, and I was really fired up. I just felt like I had a clearer picture of what I wanted the guitar’s presence to be, and I wanted to focus more on the songwriting, really develop the arrangements and all of that.
When Ged and I first got together, that first week was really rough. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it anymore. We went to the same place to write, the set-up was all the same, but having the experience of doing my own album was so fresh, and to be in control was a new experience for me, so that first week Ged and I…I think we spent three-quarters of our work time just talking. We’d sit outside and talk for hours about a lot of different things: how we’re developing as people, what interests us, what’s becoming important, how our priorities are shifting. We kind of left it at, “let’s see how the first couple of weeks go and if it’s not there we won’t do it.” We’ve always said that if the spark was gone then that’s when we’re going to stop, we’re not going to milk it. And the following week we wrote five songs. We came back in so pumped.
I assume Geddy would answer that question differently, though, given that he hadn’t spent his time off making a solo album.
I think he missed it a lot. It was different for him; he was home, he was with the baby, that’s what he wanted to do. But at the end of that eighteen month period, I think he felt that he’s a musician, he’s a songwriter, this is what he does, and he’s got to do it.
But I have to say the experience of working on this album was great, we had so much fun, and we were so positive, really clear about what we wanted. And I think it shows; there’s a feel and a character and a personality to this album that hasn’t existed on our other albums. To me, anyways.
Did Neil have the same reaction to the time off as Geddy?
No, I think he loves doing it, period. With Neil, he slots his time for all his activities. He had this, this, this, and this. And at the end of this one is the beginning of the writing of the album. He works in a very organized fashion that way, he really, really enjoys that whole interaction in the studio. When we’re writing, we go to a place that’s about a half-hour/forty minutes from here, it’s a funky little studio out in the country, and we stay there all week, and he enjoys that. He doesn’t have that kind of contact. We stay there all week and come home on the weekends. You’re away from distractions and get up early in the morning and have breakfast together and shoot the shit, and then start working by ten-thirty/eleven o’clock, and get it a really full days work. About seven o’clock we’ll have dinner, then maybe futz around a little bit in the evening. And then we hang around, and it’s the guys, and I think Neil really likes that aspect of it.
Unlike a lot of bands that came up in the ’70s and ’80s, there aren’t a lot of stories about you guys getting drunk and throwing TVs out hotel windows. Were you guys not into that, or were you just really good at keeping those stories to yourself?
We don’t sit around drinking before we go on stage, “Yeah, let’s get out, rock & roll!” Though in the earlier days, it was a bit looser because, it just was. But as we progressed and started playing bigger venues, and when tickets prices went up, we felt that it was our responsibility to provide something of quality in terms of presentation. Honestly, we put 100% into every show. Playing is very important to us.
One of the more interesting things on Test For Echo is that you play a mandola on the song “Half The World.” Who’s idea was that?
We had done the guitars, and I mentioned to Peter [Collins, the album’s producer] that I wanted to try mandola. So I just futzed around to get a feel for it, but it changed the whole personality of the song, and we got really vibed off and started adding a couple other things. I remember Ged when he first heard it was like, “Whoa, I don’t know about that.” It was so unusual for a Rush song to have that kind of texture. But it grew on him really quickly. I think it’s probably his favorite part of the album.
Is it hard to break the parameters of what is and isn’t Rush?
Sometimes it is, but generally no. We’re pretty open minded about things, and certainly if anyone has an idea they want to pursue, then go ahead. Ultimately, it’s a collective decision on whether the part works or not, but the opportunity is there to try it.
With this album, we finished two or three weeks before the end of the writing schedule, so we had lots of time to work on pre-production. Neil was very clear on what he wanted to do with the drums, I got to spend days and days and days just working on guitar solos. So to try something like the mandola, it was really just a matter of picking it up and playing. Everything would happen very quickly, and you’d know right away if it was working, and I think that comes from being prepared.
I mentioned earlier about being a band that came up in the ’70s and ’80s. A lot of your contemporaries have, over the years, broken up and then reunited, but their tours seem to be more nostalgic than anything else. And instead of playing arenas, they play state fairs and amusement parks. Is that weird for you, seeing bands you playing with, or even opened for, doing that?
I don’t know, maybe we’re the weird ones. We seem to be one of the only ones who don’t tour like that. I guess trends change, and if you’ve been around a long time and you start waning in your popularity, you try to capitalize on it as much as you can. And certainly in the case of some of these older bands, that’s exactly what it is. It’s pretty obvious what Kiss is doing, and a lot of those bands are like that. They were here, and then they were gone, and then they realized that, for whatever reasons — sitting around home is boring, or maybe it’s tough to pay the bills — that maybe they should do the only thing they know how to do.
But I don’t think we’d ever get to that stage where we’d want to do that. We’d give it up for sure before we’d do that.
So do you think Rush has a future?
Oh yeah. When we were working on this album, we were already talking about the next one. So we are definitely thinking in terms of the future.
If anything, the one aspect of what we do that’s a little more difficult to deal with than in the past is touring. We all have different feelings about touring. The last tour was not a particularly good tour for me. I think we played well, but there were things going on personally for me that made being away kind of difficult. And Neil, he goes back and forth. A lot of times he feels okay about touring, but most of the time he doesn’t. Again, for him, it’s just different. He enjoys playing, but I don’t know if he enjoys playing live so much anymore. In Ged’s case, he’s really anxious to get back out there because, I think, it goes back to the whole getting back into the whole work thing. And he needs it, as I do, too. I’m really looking forward to this next tour because I feel very positively about the album and about myself and where I am in terms of my life, and it’s all a part of that growth. So it would be good for me to get back on the road. But I think that’s really the only area that may suffer in the future. As far as recording goes, we really enjoy that a lot, and so long as we have the opportunity, I think we’ll continue doing that for sure.
I recently interview Sonny Rollins, and he said that he still practices every day. Do you do that?
Nah [laughs]. I played so much last year, and even when I was mixing Victor I would sit down and play, so my hands felt great. And it comes back fairly quickly. I just figure there are other things in life to do than to be very disciplined about practicing. I know that I’ll get it back, so it’s okay to pursue other things. I only have a few months where I can do some of the other things I enjoy doing, and then it’s back into touring. I’ll deal with it when that time comes, but for now I just like to relax.
I interviewed Geddy yesterday, and he said that even during your breaks, he still ends up working on things connected to the band. Do you do that as well?
Ged’s always felt this responsibility for looking after that kind of business aspect of the band, like the producer of the video and stuff like that. A lot of times I’ve said to him, “Look, let me look after some stuff.” And he’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, that’ll be great.” But when it comes down to it, he’s got to do it. He may complain about it now and again, but he needs it, he really needs it.
The whole point of this year and a half off was to separate ourselves, to stop thinking about the band as the center of our little universe. I don’t think back in terms of what was I doing in ’87, or ’82, or ’74, I think, “What album did we have out then?” or “Where were we on the road?” Those are my connections, and those have been my connections for twenty-six years, and I really needed — as Ged did and Neil did — to just get away from that.
What’s it like for you to hear Rush’s influence in other people’s music?
I find it really hard to recognize that in other someone else’s music. Maybe a band like Dream Theatre — who really take classic Rush arrangements and apply them to their music — it’s a little more noticeable to me. But a lot of bands that cite us as an influence, I don’t know if I really hear it. Maybe its more subtle. I think a lot of those bands look to Rush as, “Here’s a group of guys who went out and did it their own way and stayed true to their music the whole time.” But we’ve worked at that and we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had an audience that’s grown with us and feels very close to us. I can’t think of a guitar player that sounds like me.
Are there any of your albums or songs that you hate?
I’d like to have a whirl at remixing Signals [laughs]. The guitars were really downplayed on that. It’s really a question of balance on that album. It was fine that we were experimenting with keyboards, and they were a relatively new thing at the time, but it cost the guitar presence. And I think it was just a mistake in the way that album was mixed. Especially since I like the songs that are on that album: I think “Subdivisions” is a good song, and I heard “Digital Man” a while ago and I thought it sounded cool. But it suffered from mixing.
Speaking of songs from back then, do you ever get sick of playing “Tom Sawyer”?
No because there’s always such a great response to it, there’s a great energy, and it’s just a fun song to play. I like playing some of the older stuff, especially songs we haven’t played in a long time. On the last tour we brought back parts of “Cygnus” and “Hemispheres,” and hopefully when we make the set up of this tour that we’ll bring back other old things we haven’t played in a long time.
Now, before you made your first album, you recorded a single that included a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” What’s the story behind that?
It was on the first album, originally. But we’d used this so-called producer on the first album who engineered and produced it, and then mixed the record in two hours. But it was a mess. He mixed the drums out of phase with themselves. That’s why we went to Terry Brown, who had a studio in town, and said “Help. Please help us” and y’know basically we fixed that stuff. But then we decided to drop a couple of songs, “Not Fade Away” being one and another song called “Can’t Fight It” [which was also on the single], and then recorded some more current stuff that we’d done.
Have you guys ever given any thought to putting those songs on a compilation? I know there was some talk about a boxed set at one point.
Well, we talked about doing something with our 20th anniversary, but the more we talked about it and thought about it the less we wanted to do it. It was just too nostalgic and that’s not what we wanted. We were moving forward and we really gave up on that whole idea.
But do you have a lot of stuff in the vaults? ’Cause when the idea of the box set was being batted around one of the rumors about it was that there was some forty-five minute long song about “Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.” Or was that just a pipe dream?
Yeah, we’ve never recorded anything that didn’t appear on an album. Though there are a couple shows that were broadcast on the radio where we did some songs that we never recorded [the songs “Fancy Dancer,” “Garden Road,” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Bad Boy” can be found on bootlegs of a show from Cleveland in August of 1974; “Bad Boy” is also found on an Electric Ladyland show from December of ’74; while “I’ve Been Runnin’” and “The Loser” are included on the extras disc of the R40 boxed set, which is available on Blu-ray and DVD]. That was during our first tour when we only had our first album, so we needed to do some of the other stuff that we were playing in clubs and bars from back then in the set.
To read my interview with Rush’s Geddy Lee, which was done for the same article (but the day before), click here.
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