Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rush is back: an interview with Alex Lifeson

Well, for me, they never really went anywhere, with the exception of the hiatus in the late 90s, and that was due to exceptional circumstances out of the band's control.

This is more for the general public and how the band has been received in that light. It's one of the better interviews about the band of recent history...it gives some interesting insights into their future.

The Rosetta Stone on how they've kept it going for so long? It's simpler than you might think.


In addition to touring ceaselessly, that's the essential ingredient that's kept the band alive for so long...but it's more fun to hear about it straight from them than to hear me go on and on, so I'll shut up now.

Rush is Back: Pop culture proclaims the formerly dorky band cool

Rush has spent nearly 35 years being uncool; the antidote to hip.

Its songs have been derided by critics as musically out of fashion, and lyrically obtuse. (Drummer Neil Peart, who writes the songs, was chosen by Blender magazine as second only to Sting as worst rock lyricist.)

But it’s not just critics who’ve slagged the band.

In the 1999 movie SLC Punk! a flashback to future Salt Lake City punkers Stevo and Bob shows the pair as junior high school nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement while listening to Rush’s “Trees,” an allegorical tale set in a forest. Then Bob offers something “new” — “Kiss Me Deadly” by Generation X — and their lives change.

The indie film’s message is less than subtle: Rush is a fossil; even worse, it’s the group of choice for teenage dorks, geeks, and nerds alike.

But the winds of fortune have changed in Rush’s favor, beginning with a Rolling Stone profile of the band in its July 10 issue, a first for the magazine.

Suddenly, Rush is everywhere: performing its biggest hit, “Tom Sawyer,” on The Colbert Report; appearing on VH-1 Classic in a 24-hour marathon of the band’s concerts and videos titled “Rush Hashanah” during the Jewish New Year, and having its bestselling album, “Moving Pictures,” available as a complete download in the game Rock Band (one of only a handful of records available so far).

And next year, just in time for the band’s 35th birthday, look for a Rush documentary and a cameo by the band members in the comedy I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, and Jon Favreau, punctuated by an induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Given all the love that’s coming the band’s way, dare we now proclaim Rush cool? Perhaps. And how does all this attention make band members feel? Surprised, said guitarist Alex Lifeson, after an early morning spent on the phone talking to reporters to promote the band’s just-released Snakes and Arrows Live DVD.

“We’ve always sort of been outside — well, maybe not a little bit — we’ve always been kind of outside the mainstream, we’ve done things our own way,” Lifeson said. “We have a very strong core following that’s been very loyal and stuck with us for all these years and allowed us to function that way without having a broader appeal. To suddenly be asked to be in films, of course the Rolling Stone thing, and the Stephen Colbert — all these things ... it makes us smile that all of a sudden Rush is a cool thing, when we have not been a very cool thing for a very long time.”
The Canadian power trio — rounded out by Geddy Lee on bass, vocals, and keyboards — are praised by musicians and fans for the members’ prodigious instrumental skills, showcased in early epic prog rock songs about black holes, Greek gods, and totalitarian societies.

As the band members grew older, though, their music matured. They left behind the concept albums to focus on thematic records about the human condition, and social commentary — often with a libertarian point of view.

The band’s sound also grew tighter, smarter, and more straightforward.
In more than three decades of recording, Rush has released 24 records, 17 of which are studio recordings. All 24 of those records have gone Gold, 14 of them have been certified Platinum, and three have gone multiple Platinum. In fact, Rush ranks behind the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith for the most consecutive gold or platinum records by a rock group, for total sales of 25 million records in the United States alone.

Rush released its first, eponymous LP in 1974 in Canada on its own label, with little interest in exporting the record to U.S. listeners. Then Donna Halper, then program director at WMMS-FM in Cleveland, played the import on her late-night radio show and everything changed. The album “got really great phone response,” Lifeson recalled, and Halper reached out to a friend at Mercury Records in Chicago. Within a week the band was signed and began a tour with Peart now manning the skins. (Rutsey left the band for health reasons — he was diabetic — which made it difficult for him to tour.)

“Neil was in the band for two weeks before we did our first gig, so it didn’t allow a lot of time to go over a lot of material,” Lifeson said. “Granted, for the most part we were just opening, so we were only playing for 20-30 minutes. At that time that was only two songs, ‘Finding My Way’ and ‘Working Man,’ but we were also doing some headline club gigs, so we needed to have some decent amount of material. We used to rehearse in the van and in hotel rooms, as much as we could, and then we’d go into these clubs.”
More from Alex Lifeson

Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson had much to say in his recent interview with The Blade. Too much, as it turns out, for the print story. Below are some excerpts from the interview that didn’t make the print cut:

Alex on ...

“Like any group of high school kids — we were 15 years old — Geddy and I had been playing together for a year. John Rutsey and I had been playing for a couple of years together. We had basement bands that we’d play at parties and we’d play the same six songs over and over and you were paid in potato chips and Coke. It was such an exciting time, it was the mid-’60s, and we were growing up with all this incredible music. We put our little band together, and it was important that we write out own music. Probably within ... the first year we were doing half to two-thirds original material. It was pretty basic and I would cringe to hear those songs now, [but] at least we were writing our own stuff and that set the template. We were playing drop in centres and high school dances on a Friday night, that sort of thing. In 1971 the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 in Ontario, in our Province. ... We went from playing three or four gigs a month to playing six days a week with a matinees on Saturdays. That was great because that’s were we learned our chops. We had these three-four years of this constant playing. It was this continuing cycle of playing gigs of playing for three hours a night, and then whatever you could do during the day you’d get together and do some writing or work stuff out. That was really, really important for the band’s development, I think.


“That’s how it went, but it was a whole different world then, and the music industry has changed so much. We would sort of cap phases and the live album gave us breathing space. But that’s when we were playing 150-250 shows a year and making one or two records a year. It was a whole different time in the band’s development. Much later we didn’t feel the need to cap a particular period, and now we do a lot of these DVDs with every tour because it gives you something to mark that period in your playing, in your development, in your audience, the technology that’s available to you.”


“With this one, ‘Snakes and Arrows,’ this tour we did a number of songs we hadn’t played before or we hadn’t played since the ’70s. We played nine songs from ‘Snakes and Arrows,’ which was a great way to showcase the record for us. Normally, we would do somewhere between three to five songs from an album, because we have such a depth of material in the catalog that people want us to play, but we were so excited and pumped with this record [that] we really wanted to do as much as we could from it. These songs develop in a live arena and they grow, and it’s nice to be able to document them at another time other than the recording.”


“It’s always a difficult one for us and we always end up disappointing somebody, I think. We kind of go through what the staples are, the songs that we need to play, and then we look at other songs that we’d like to play, and we try out stuff that we think we should play, and then whittle down to that sort of three-hour range. Quite often it starts out at four, four and 1/2 hours and we cut it back. We try some stuff that doesn’t work, we try it in rehearsal and if it doesn’t inspire us or go anywhere, then we sort of set it aside. I always feel like we need to expand a little more and we do a little bit, I think. ‘Entre Nous’ and ‘Circumstances’ were two songs that I’m glad we brought into the set. ‘Entre Nous’ is a song we’ve never played live and I really enjoyed playing that.”


“It takes up too much time. I’d totally be into doing that. We did that with ‘2112’ a few tours back where we played the whole thing. That was the first tour where we did, in fact, play all of ‘2112.’ Even when we first started doing it back in the ’70s we never played the whole thing. I like the idea of the challenge of doing that. ... If we’re going to play for five hours, let’s do ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ let’s do all those songs. It’d be fun. And visually we’d have a lot of license to do some very interesting things technically. Wait and see.”


“There are a number of options open to us. I think the most likely is that we’ll record another record and tour off that, Another option is that we might do a specialty tour, or we’ll do another major tour and look at doing more obscure songs. I don’t think we would just do the same sort of tour we did last time. I would be different. I don’t think we would be content to just do another tour ... just milk it. Otherwise, I’d rather stay home, to be honest with you.” (Laughs)


“No, I don’t think so. We’ve always tried to say in the present as much as we could and make sure we did the best job in whatever it is we’re doing. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done. The fact that we’re still together after so many years is an amazing achievement, and the fact that we’re playing the best that we’ve ever played is also quite incredible to me. When it’s all said and done, I think I’ll feel very content and very happy with that we’ve left behind in the world of music. To see at this stage on tours 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids out in the audience who are air drumming and air guitaring and singing our lyrics and being introduced to the band through Rock Band and [Guitar] Hero and inspiring them to play guitar like I do on drums like Neil does, that’s a wonderful feeling and it’s very warm.”

Contact Kirk Baird atkbaird@theblade.comor 419-724-6734.
The band’s second album, 1975’s “Fly By Night,” was another hit, as the group left its Led Zeppelin-cloned sound behind and pushed into progressive rock territory with songs like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and the J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired “Rivendell.” Buoyed by its success, the band delved even further into prog-rock with its third album, “Caress of Steel,” later that year, which featured two cuts that accounted for more than three-quarters of the record’s material. The results were disastrous.

The record tanked with fans, and Rush’s management and record label worried if the band had a future. Under duress and uncertain of the future themselves, Rush responded with the band’s first critical hit, “2112,” an epic Ann Rynd-inspired concept album about an oppressive society from the future. “ ‘2112’ is all about independence and bucking the system,” Lifeson said. The album not only stood as a statement to the record label and other doubters, but also as a lifeline to the band.

“The great thing about it was that we connected somehow with our listening audience and the record did very, very well, and it bought us our independence and freedom,” Lifeson said. “And after that we were never ever questioned by the record company or management. Once you have some success it’s a lot easier to write your own rules.”

Rush capped the “2112” tour and that period with a live album, “All the World’s a Stage,” in 1976. Then the band returned to the studio and started working on an album that was even longer, even more progressive, and its fan base grew. By 1980 Rush hit its stride and released in succession arguably its best work: 1980’s “Permanent Waves,” 1981’s “Moving Pictures,” and 1982’s “Signals,” which, between them, continually account for nearly one-third of the band’s setlist material.
Things continued to look up for the band through the 1980s and into the ’90s — then the good fortune stopped.

In the summer of 1997, Peart’s teenage daughter was killed in a car crash. Less than a year later, his wife succumbed to cancer. Peart was devastated and the band was put on hold, possibly for good. Lee and Lifeson waited to see if their friend and bandmate could heal.

“That was a very, very difficult period. I don’t think I played my guitar or really listened to music much for a year after Selena’s death,” Lifeson said. “And then, of course, complicated with Neil’s wife’s passing, it just knocked everything out of us. As far as we were concerned, the band had very little chance of surviving; I mean, Neil was barely surviving.

“Our goal was to try to get him back on his feet, or help to get him back on his feet as best as we could. It was a very tough thing, it’s a very personal thing that is chronicled in his book Ghost Rider, what he went through. It wasn’t until he finally found some peace and remarried … and his wife, who really knew very little about the band, was the instigator and the catalyst. [She] said to him, ‘This is what you do, this is who you are. You have to really think about getting yourself back into it and not avoiding that sort of thing.’

“And then we got together and he said ‘I think I’m ready to possibly to go back to work.’ It was a slow rebuilding process. It was four years we were off the road, and here’s a guy who played drums every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day who hadn’t played his drums in four years.”

With the band in hiatus, Lee and Lifeson did their own thing, including Lee’s solo disc “My Favorite Headache.” But there was never a moment when the two thought the band could go on without Peart.

“That’s not the kind of band we ever were. Neil would not be a particularly easy guy to replace,” Lifeson said. “The Rush experience for us has been a family experience. Geddy and I live five minutes from each other. This is [after] 40-plus years of knowing each other and we’re still five minutes from each other. I played tennis with him last week, we had dinner the other night, [there’s a] wine tasting next Tuesday — he’s my best friend and we happen to be in a band together. That makes it a little easier to make those decisions about what you would do if they weren’t there anymore. It’s not just a job, it’s a whole life we’ve lived together.”
More greatest hits
Peart returned to Rush in early 2001, and in 2002 the band made its triumphant return with “Vapor Trails,” which debuted at No. 6 on Billboard. This was followed by more successful world tours, and another successful record, “Snakes and Arrows,” which was released in May of last year. Rush supported “Snakes and Arrows” with two lengthy tours, which are documented in a CD as well as DVD.

Rush has a third greatest hits package due early next year. After that release, its contract with longtime record label Mercury/Atlantic is up. And already there’s online fan speculation about what’s next for the Toronto band. Will Rush re-sign with Atlantic and return to the studio? Or will the band instead hit the road next year to celebrate its 35th anniversary? First things first, Lifeson said.

“Right now we just want rest,” Lifeson said. “We’ve been working really hard for the last seven or eight years on numerous records, tours, and DVDs; it’s been pretty constant through that whole period. We really feel like we need to step back and recharge our batteries and just not think about the band and what we’re going to do. You never know, Geddy and I might do some casual writing in the spring, but I’m guessing we probably won’t do anything until the fall of next year. At that time ... we’ll set out what we’re doing.

“There are a number of options open to us. I think the most likely is that we’ll record another record and tour off that. Working with [“Snakes and Arrows” producer] Nick Raskulinecz, he’s pushing us to think about doing another sort of concept record ... instead of just a thematically conceptual album like the most current records are. Wether we’re up for that kind of thing, I’m not so sure. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Toledo tour stop?
Rush hasn’t performed in Toledo since the early ’90s, Lifeson said. When told about the new arena, though, he is enthusiastic about another concert by the band here. Lee even has family in the area who he and Lifeson visit whenever they were in town for a tour.

As the conversation winds down, talk pushes to the end of the band. Given that all the members of the group are in their mid-50s, the end of Rush is certainly closer than its beginning. So how would Lifeson like the band to go out? How would he script Rush’s finale?

“That’s a tough question. I don’t know,” Lifeson said. “I was going to say that we go out on this incredible tour where we were just at the top of our game and we moved on and that was it. But at the same time, and I think maybe it’s because I am Canadian, I think I’d like us to rather just go quietly out. Just kind of fade away quietly and not cause a big deal.”

Contact Kirk Baird at:kbaird@theblade.comor 419-724-6734.

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