Interview: Alex Lifeson (Rush)
10th Jan 2011 | 11:06
Guitarist Extra: The legendary Rush will hit the UK for a run of dates on their Time Machine tour in May – featuring the whole of their classic Moving Pictures album played live for the time ever. Guitarist Alex Lifeson talks that, new guitar gear, a new album… and a rapidly increased female fanbase too.
© Andrew MacNaughtan
In a Guitarist exclusive, Alex Lifeson talks about Rush's Time Machine tour and future ahead of their UK tour in May.
Guitarist: 2010 seems to have been a great year for Rush with the tour and the documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage. How was it for you?
Alex Lifeson: "The documentary changed a lot of things with people's perception of the band and its history. We're seeing so many different people coming to shows and I have to say the most noticeable thing is the number of women that now come to shows. Traditionally we've been a guys' band and the only females we would see – mostly not all – were the ones that were dragged by their husbands or boyfriends.
"I think we had our smattering of actual fans but now, and I think it's been due to the documentary, probably a quarter of our audience is female. But true fans – they know the material, we can see them singing and they'll come in groups; three or four girls coming to a Rush show is crazy."
Do you think outsiders can see what the band are about more now because of the film - your sense of humour as much as your musical integrity...
"It's created a curiosity, particularly for people that thought of us in a certain way and had no interest in our music before. Suddenly this has piqued their interest – they see us as people but also, everybody in their secret heart wants to be in a rock band and here we are living the dream.
"We're older guys now but we've been doing it since we were teenagers and along the way there's this story about who we are as people. Not only as musicians but the way we function in our world, what friendship and family means. And I think a lot of people relate to that, whether they're a fan of ours or not. Suddenly there's this story that they find compelling."
And it really hit home that as a unit you're pretty much a benchmark for musical and personal chemistry in a successful band...
"Everybody's different, but in our case we're very close and we always have been. There's a great love and friendship – a bond. A bond that's been cemented through tragedy in the band. It sets us apart I think."
© Andrew MacNaughtan
You're playing the Moving Pictures album in its entirety on this tour, did the idea to do that come from Neil [Peart, drums]?
"It did come from Neil. I think he went to see a Steely Dan concert and I think on that tour they were playing a different album every night. That's a little too ambitious for us! But we thought that maybe now would be a good time to do it. It's the 30th anniversary and we play most of the songs from the album [in the live set] anyway so it's a good excuse for us to sneak The Camera Eye into the set, which has been called for for many, many years [Rush last played the song live in 1983]. It's turned out to be a great thing to do. The set goes by very quickly funnily enough, playing the whole album. You get into the groove from start to finish and from our end it's really enjoyable to play.
"We thought about resurrecting Camera Eye on the previous tour but in the end we just didn't feel it was exciting enough in that particular set. It took up a big chunk of time – two songs worth – that we have to be aware of when playing a three-hour set. But when we put it all together for this tour there was something about the song that gave it this new life that made it one of our favourites to play on a nightly basis."
Does playing a song live again after a long break always give you a fresh perspective on it?
"In this case it does but sometimes it doesn't – it didn't inspire either Geddy or me on the tour before this in the same way. We attack it with a little more edge now – the parts are more dynamic playing them live. We've trimmed a little bit here and there so we've lost a few pounds on the song but it could use it."
Neil has said in the past that he thinks Moving Pictures really established Rush's identity – how do you feel about it on reflection?
"I think so too, although really for me it was on 2112 that I felt that we were becoming us – our influences were less obvious and we were thinking in our own terms. But there is something about Moving Pictures that is very cohesive and it really marked a change in our attitude and lives as people. It was the beginning of a new decade and there was a lot of promise and optimism in the eighties."
The solo to Limelight is unique and a personal favourite of yours, how do you feel about approaching it live these days?
"It's one of my favourites to play and it's definitely one of my favourites of those I've played. There's a quality on the record that's very haunting but I don't think I get that same character [live] just by the nature of the sound. I think that on record it's more plaintive in that whole section, even in the background that I was playing over. It's very elastic through that whole solo section. Live, it's got a little more beef to it and a little more edge. It's fairly close note-wise and I get as close to that haunting character as I can. It's an enjoyable solo to play every night – it has movement. But some nights I definitely feel a lot better with it than I do others."
What song from Moving Pictures is the biggest challenge for you to play live?
"Well YYZ is not an easy song to play, on a nightly basis it's always a challenge to play for everybody. You have to be on your toes with all the parts. I'd say that and The Camera Eye are the most challenging songs to play from the album. But at the same time Red Barchetta is the same sort of thing – it has a lot of parts that really require a good execution. It's easy to be sloppy and ruin those songs."
© Andrew MacNaughtan
Not many bands can play a three-hour set like you guys do – how tiring is it?
"Well as long as I can get back into my wheelchair afterwards I'm okay! It is challenging, it's certainly challenging for Geddy having to sing that much and I don't know how Neil does it then gets on his motorcyle and drives 300 miles for the show the next day. It's all part of building his endurance. It feels great but we're in our late fifties now and you definitely feel the demands over the course of a tour playing three hours. But I wouldn't have it any other way – I could go another half hour! It's just so much fun playing every night, you'd think that after all these years it would really be a slog and work but I have to say, every night I just can't wait to get onstage and play."
What guitars are you using for the Moving Pictures part of the set?
"Mostly the Les Pauls – I've been playing them a lot lately but I've got my PRSs for some of the other material throughout the set. Generally I go back and forth between a '58 and piezo and a '59 with a vibrato."
Your Hughes & Kettner steam punk cabs for this tour are really something special...
"They're really cool – Hughes & Kettner were blown away and I think they've got some requests and orders to build a similar thing but that's a task. These are props but they do have twin 2 x 12s in the and enclosures for the monitors as well. Steam blows out of them too!"
You're using less cabs than on the Snakes & Arrows tour...
"I think I had four stacks up there for that tour. I wanted that traditional look – it's so manly to have all those amps behind you. With this tour we were looking for a completely different theme and it's the first time we've been all together on a concept and it's reflected across the stage."
There's now a Coreblade in your rig in addition to your two Triamps – is that to add some new texture to the mix?
"Exactly, I use the Coreblade to emphasis sections, whether it's a little grittier sound or even something cleaner – a phasy thing. That's its main purpose while the Triamps are the main stereo set-up. I really haven't changed my effects [in recent years] I'm still using the G-Forces, they're very dependable and they sound great. The 1210 for chorus."
So no gear problems yet on this tour?
"None and I'm knocking on wood. It's been pretty good, there are always a couple of issues here and there and we've had a few little problems on this tour – and tracing them back through a complex system can always be challenging. But I think we got all the bugs out of it on the first half of the tour so it should be smooth sailing on the back end."
It's a new step for you to record and release two new songs – Caravan and BU2B – ahead of recording a whole album, and you're also playing them both live. Are you planning to reappraise them when you go back to work on the album?
"Well I think it would only make sense to have a go at them and see if it develops in any way. They will develop in the course of a tour and it's interesting how much they've changed from the very start of the tour. And you don't think you've don't anything different to them but the feel has changed and maybe the ferocity with these two particular songs.
"It'll be interesting to have another whack at them. It's an easy thing that once you've been playing a song for close to a year, you go in and record it. We don't ever really do that so I'm eager to see what happens with it."
Rush – Caravan
Caravan has a very interesting discordant guitar solo from you...
"It was a soundscape approach from the beginning and I naturally went in that direction. That's something I would review, to be honest with you, if it came down to recording it again. I might have a different approach to it or different approaches. But I like the instability of it – quite often in solos that I do I like the feeling of being on the edge, the feeling you might fall over. But at the same time, it's not that you get bored, it's just that you might want to try something fresh. So we'll see."
Is the steam punk imagery from the Time Machine tour going to carry over to the next album?
"It is kind of unplanned but at the same time it lends itself to it, the imagery of where we're going. But after you make a record you have a much better idea of where you want to go with it and this may all seem like the past then, this whole approach. But I don't know, it's a lot of fun to develop those ideas for a tour and see where it goes. And it starts with the album – we'll have a much better picture once we get into that."
You're playing over here in the UK this May, what memories do you have of touring and recording in the UK over the years?
"Generally I have very fond memories. The early years were so exciting; it was magical for us to come to the UK in the mid-seventies. It was the seat of the music we loved the most so it was great to soak up some of the atmosphere of being in the UK.
"Those early tours were very exciting but they were difficult too – it's a different touring scene and cycle compared to North America. At first it was a lot of fun, then it got a little more gruelling I think as the years went by. We recorded quite a few records in the UK and I know we all talked about moving there at one point. I think Geddy has a flat in London that he bought earlier this year so he intends to spend a lot more time there.
"The UK was the seat of everything rock from our generation – for us anyhow. Being on the northern side of the border with the U.S, I think the influences from our British heritage are greater. We connect to it more easily."
Is the plan now to take a break after this tour then think about releasing the next album in 2012?
"Originally the plan was to get back into writing and then recording this year but this tour was so successful with the demand for us to carry on and play a little bit longer. So we played with the ideas and as we got closer to the end of the tour we realised we were going to get a lot of push to continue it. And we wanted to, we didn't think we were going to have quite as much fun as we've had with it.
"The whole idea of doing Moving Pictures and not sharing it, particularly in the UK, was a real concern of ours. So Ged and I will get back to writing in the new year. We'll get through the Christmas holidays and start writing through January and February. We only have two or three more songs that we feel we need for the album. So we can start reworking the material and get it in great shape. Then we'll prepare for the tour in March, finish in July, take the summer off then start work in earnest in September."
Rush UK tour dates:
Glasgow, SECC - May 14
Sheffield, Motorpoint Aena - 16
Manchester, MEN Arena - 19
Newcastle, Metro Radio Arena - 21
Birmingham, LG Arena - 22
London, 02 Arena - 25