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The PROG Interview: Alex Lifeson
November 13th, 2015
by Philip Wilding
After the high of Rush's farewell tour, the guitarist opens up about everything from his health to the pleasures of pot,
making new music and being on the fairway to heaven.
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The last time Prog chatted with Alex Lifeson was on August 1 at the LA Forum. The hugely successful R40 tour had finally come to an end and the third-floor bar of the Forum thrummed with family and friends celebrating what might be Rush's last show. Standing among his musical and artistic peers - Chad Smith, Taylor Hawkins, Matt Stone, Jack Black and Stewart Copeland, to name a few - he grinned happily, waving a drink around, making sure our glass was charged before disappearing in the happy throng.
That week we'd watched him hold court at the Canadian Consulate with his bandmates at the behest of Consul General of Canada James Villeneuve and his family. He was, as he often is, the cause of riotous laughter out by the pool. We'd then seen him a few days later still, out under the dome of stars of the Irvine Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue carved into the side of a hill two hours south of Hollywood. He was grinning like a banshee as Rush barrelled backwards through time with a set that marched almost without pause from Clockwork Angels all the way back to Working Man.
For a man who's supposed to be suffering the travails of aging and arthritis, his playing was as fluid and mellifluous as it ever was, from the broad, chiming sweeps of their last album to the choppy riffs of their first, not a note missed. He didn't even wince when he had to strap on his twin-necked guitar for Xanadu.
Lifeson is the perpetual smiling face at the heart of Rush. You only have to watch the outtakes of the band's 2010 documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage and witness his gags tying Neil Peart up in knots, to the point where asphyxiation looks like his only option, to understand how pervasive and unrelenting his good nature and humour really are. Geddy Lee calls him "the funniest man I know". He's also, perhaps, the most welcoming. He once brought Prog a very good bottle of Scotch and then helped us drink more than half of it.
Spend an evening with Lifeson and it stretches out into dope smoke-suffused storytelling, and there's never a guitar far from his hand. He plays naturally and unthinkingly. Golf, admittedly, he has to work a little harder at, but it brings him joy the way good whiskey, complex buds of weed or a well-tuned guitar do. He's a pleasure to be around.
That being said, Prog caught up with him at home a few weeks after the tour's end, planning a trip to Greece with his extended family. He'd literally been packing his bags when we called. R40's dazzling highs had settled into something altogether lower since the band had gathered up all their things and headed home to Toronto.
How do you decompress after a tour like that?
I went out to our house in the country to spend a few days by myself. I played a little golf and watched TV, played guitar in the evening, just kicked back and tried to clear my head.
Earlier in the tour you told Rolling Stone: "I don't think that we're having much difficulty thinking of it as possibly the last [tour]." Do you still feel that way?
I don't know if I do still feel that way now. I thought the tour was great. I thought we played really well, the turnout was fantastic, I thought the set was great, the songs we chose were right. There was so much about it that was so positive and I think going into it there was the thought that this is the last one, a nice way to go out on top. But once we were in the middle of it or even towards the end of it, it seemed like it was just too short.
At the Canadian Consulate reception, you said you wouldn't mind extending the run of shows a bit longer...
That's the thing, the human thing. It's the three of us and we've always made decisions that way. It has to be unanimous and if it isn't then you work hard to try and make it so. If not then you defer to the one outside. And in this case I think it's pretty obvious that Neil doesn't want to tour any more and that's fine and I understand. He's got some really good reasons: it's painful, it's hard, it's not joyful for him, it's difficult and it hurts his body and it hurts his brain and I totally get it. I'm fine with that.
I just wish we'd been able to do another 20 shows or so and it's too bad that we're going to miss the UK particularly. It just feels a little shy of a true finish, a complete resolution. But if that's the way it is then we'll adjust to it. I think we need to have a little space, a little time off to regroup and think about what we want to do in the future. If and when we want to record another record and if there's a possibility of us doing something in the future, I don't know. The ball is in Neil's court, clearly.
Talking of aches and pains, how are you physically?
I'm hurting a little but it doesn't bother me - everybody has aches and pains. I think if it was really slowing me down and quite critical in my playing then it would be a different story. My hand is sore after a show like it never was before, but it's okay, it's not a big deal - take a couple of Tylenols and power through it! I still have some gas in this tank and I feel quite healthy and good.
And the same for Ged. Boy, I've been listening to some of these mixes from Toronto for the DVD and his playing is out there; it's over the top. I can't believe he's playing some of the stuff he's playing when he's singing. I've known this for 40 years, 47 years, but when you listen to how intricate and how solid and tight he is while he's singing, it's remarkable.
It must have been a terrible shock as a guitarist to get arthritis in your hands.
I wasn't really surprised. Arthritis runs through our family - I knew I was going to be a candidate eventually. I'll be honest, it's been a little bit more of a struggle, but only a little bit, so I can absolutely live with it - it doesn't debilitate me in any way.
You were recently quoted as saying dope was "a creative agent". I couldn't tell if you were being playful or not.
I clearly think it's a creative agent. Smoking a bit of pot and sitting down and creating or playing music is a lot of fun. Speaking personally, I come up with riffs and I love different alternate tunings when I'm a little bit high, and I find I can play for ever and ever when I've had a smoke.
In terms of application, it's probably a bit of a detriment. I think you want to have your wits about you and have a clear head when you're performing in the studio certainly, and I couldn't imagine it in a million years before playing a live show. I wouldn't even have a beer before a show - you really do have to be aware then. It's a recreational thing - it's fun to do once in a while when you're playing. It would be very terrifying to do a live Rush show on dope.
Though people do bring you medicinal dope on tour.
It's mostly from acquaintances and friends that I've made over the years. It's not stuff that's thrown up on stage or anything. And also there are three states in the US where it's legal, plus most states have a medicinal marijuana program and these gifts come in packages that are sealed and stamped and obviously professionally manufactured, so it's not a big deal. They're little presents. You used to get a bottle of wine or chocolates or a baseball, now it's pot.
And golf's still a vice too?
Ha! I play a lot on the road. This year I felt much healthier than I have in quite a few years. I have lots of energy and I went out and played almost every day, including show days, which I never did on the last couple of tours. And for me, it's really therapeutic. It gets me out of my hotel room, which I just can't stand being in - even on show days, it drives me nuts.
So to get out for five or six hours is a real treat and it's an impossible game to get good at, always a challenge. You're always working to get better. It's always one step forward, two steps back, but I thoroughly enjoy it. I invested in a club which I'm no longer an owner of, but I'm a member there and I love my days on the golf course.
Does it help with your insomnia?
Nothing does, really. I sleep less lately, but I'm usually up between six and seven most mornings, regardless of what time I go to bed. I can go for a week sleeping four or five hours a night and then I catch up on the seventh or eight day for eight or nine hours. On the seventh day I rest...
Let's go back a bit. Neil and Geddy have gone on record as saying their lowest point with Rush, professionally speaking, was around the record and tour for Hemispheres in 1978, but for you it didn't come until nine years later.
You mean post-Hold Your Fire? Yes, that was the lowest ebb for me. I don't think I'd ever consciously thought of leaving the band, but I was feeling a bit lost. We'd just been through Europe and the UK and then we'd come back from Britain and I think we'd recorded the show in Manchester. We had a week off after what had been a very long tour and then it was back into the studio for the mixing of the live DVD, Show Of Hands.
The three of us were sitting there at the back of the mixing room with these black circles under our eyes, barely speaking to each other at that point, and then I remember we were talking about taking seven months off for the first time ever.
Thinking back on it now, we were selling ourselves short! But it was clear to all three of us, I think, that if we didn't take that break then we'd have to stop. We were completely exhausted. It was a very rigorous tour, very long, and it was when we were using a lot of new technology onstage too. Geddy was really tied to his stuff - singing, playing, the pedals, the keyboards. He had to focus very hard all set; we all did.
That's still a real issue when we plan sets now - Geddy doesn't want to be tied to one place on stage. He needs to roam!
What kind of band do you think you would have been if you hadn't taken the enforced hiatus after Neil lost his family?
Who can tell? It was four years and we certainly didn't stop. I produced and did TV stuff. It was just that playing in Rush at that point wasn't an option. Then when we did reconvene for Vapor Trails, it became this most emotional and powerful record. That's why it was so great to finally go back and rework it [for 2013's Vapor Trails Remixed album]. We think very highly of that record, but there were things wrong with the original recording, the way it sounded.
We would have done things in a different way at the time, but I suppose we weren't thinking straight... no, not that. It was just very raw, very visceral, you know?
Rush were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013 and even though the Foo Fighters came on and performed as you on stage, the only thing people really talked about was your now infamous 'blah blah blah' acceptance speech. We can still see Geddy and Neil's mortified faces...
I had a speech written and I was rehearsing it on the way to the venue and I kept thinking, "My memory is so bad now, I can't remember anything, I might as well just get up there and go 'blah blah blah'." And then I thought about it and I wasn't sure I would do it until we were walking up to the stage, and then I decided it was the way to go. I knew it was either going to be horrible or it could be a little funny. It was probably a bit of both.
Also, acceptance speeches - how many do you have to hear? They're all the same, so let's mix it up a bit. It's the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, for Christ's sake - be irrelevant, irreverent! Be relevant, but be irreverent!
Geddy showed me a painting you did of you two from a photograph taken in a Parisian restaurant. I don't think it's overstating things to say it was excellent.
Thank you. I experiment with that sort of stuff. As a kid I drew a lot, as kids do. I painted and then I got to high school and was in an arts program there, but I don't have any training per se.
The stuff that I do is to auction and help raise money for the kidney foundation I'm involved with, and it has made me look at painting a little more in detail and explore it a little more. I'm sort of developing a style, I guess.
Have you always been good with your hands?
Yes. In my teens I had cars that I worked on. I had an MG that constantly needed some kind of work [laughs] and then I had a Jag after that that needed even more work, but I've always been handy with my hands and enjoy doing stuff with them.
You used to go to work with your dad, as a plumber. Can you still fix a leaky pipe in the dead of night?
I could solder some pipes at 3am on a cold Canadian morning, easily. It's all about gravity [laughs]. I'll send the bill for that advice. Expect an invoice.
Your Victor album was well-received. If Rush doesn't pan out, can we expect more solo work?
Sure - I write stuff all the time. I have a whole library of bits and pieces and complete songs that I've written at home and in the studio. I think if it looks unlikely that we're going to do much in the near future then I will definitely get into something like that next spring. What sort of project it turns out to be I'm not quite sure, but it will be a musical project. I can't sit around and I just love doing it so much.
Victor was a very dark record that came out of a dark time in your life. What would a new album say about you and your surroundings?
It certainly wouldn't be as dark as that album. There was a lot going on around me when I made that record, personal stuff, a lot of friends who were going through changes in their lives. Just from observation of what everyone was going through, that's kind of what that record came to be. It started out with a much lighter intention when I first started working on it.
I didn't intend it to be that way, but I liked the variety on it - it goes from folk to industrial. But I think the next thing would be much more textural and pleasing to the ear, a more instrumental and mood-enhancing piece.
So it will be more reflective of you the player then?
That's the seed of it, I think. That's what I like about it. I don't think about it, I just play, so it's just capturing all of those bits and putting them into some sort of format.
You ended up in a scuffle at the Ritz-Carlton on New Year's Eve in 2003, and later filed a lawsuit against the deputies that arrested you. What happened next?
I never got any satisfaction. It was a lot of angst and misery for a number of years and then when it was over, I came to realise that when you're in a situation like that, the small guy never wins. Especially against a big corporation and a very powerful law firm who do a real great job for their clients at the expense of everyone else's life, and create so many problems that are obstacles to the path of resolution and justice. And in the end you never feel like you got it, and I didn't.
And what's next for you?
I'll keep playing for sure. I think Ged and I will get together this fall, in fact. I was over at his place last night for dinner and we just chatted very briefly and said, 'Whenever we feel like it then let's get together, do whatever we can and get it going, and then include Neil, see if he's ready for it and then take it from there.'
But if for some reason that doesn't happen then I'll definitely work on some stuff this fall, probably even sooner.
Rush: We worked 15 months on Vapor Trails and it still wasn't right
In 2013 as the band released their live Clockwork Angels CD/DVD, Alex Lifeson sat down with the Prog Magazine show to talk Hendrix, Vapor Trails and why the Foo Fighters do a better 2112
"I felt so proud of the fact that we had all of those other musicians on stage with us." Says Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson of the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble the band took on tour around the world.
Speaking to Philip Wilding on the Prog Magazine Show, Lifeson enthused: "We got very close with them, we're still in touch, I'm even going to a stag with one of the guys in the spring in Ireland, that'll be a fun event."
Asked if it felt like taking a support band out again - something which Lifeson has admitted he's missed in the past - he responded, "No, they felt like they were part of Rush, they were part of Rush! I think they felt the same way. They're the kind of musicians who don't even get lights on them when they play, they do their part and then they leave. But we got them up to Toronto to rehearse for a week, ate together, had a few drinks together and that kind of set the tone for how we were going to work together. I loved those shows every night."
As well as the release of both the Clockwork Angels Tour DVD and live album, the band were also welcoming the long awaited remix of their comeback 2002 album, Vapor Trails. Recorded after an enforced six-year hiatus after drummer Neil Peart lost his daughter and wife barely twelve months apart, it had often been criticised for a lack of dynamics in its sound.
"That really drove us crazy," says Lifeson. "Probably Geddy more than Neil or myself. It was a very, very dark period for Neil, so his involvement was minimal, he trusted that we'd do the right thing. Ged and I have talked about doing a new mix for years, was it the right thing to do? Should it stay as it was as a marker in that period of time?
"It was such a difficult record for us, fifteen months we worked on it, we rewrote half of it, Neil hadn't even played drums for years, but we managed to get through it and that album deserved more than it got in the end. It's a pleasure to listen to it now, the original was hard to listen to, too loud and undynamic. I'm glad we got past that."
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