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Interview: Rush's Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee

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Interview: Rush's Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee


Photos by Ken Settle

If there’s one band on the planet that’s made it cool for musicians to be … well, uncool, it’s Rush. Because let’s face it—the intelligent, chops-heavy prog rock that Geddy Lee (vocals/bass/keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitars), and Neil Peart (drums/lyrics) have become synonymous with over the last 30-plus years will never completely escape the stigma of being considered overwrought, stodgy, and even nerdy.

But with 1980’s “The Spirit of Radio”—a tune that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ranked as one of the top 500 most genre-defining—the dudes raked in fame and glory with brainy, multisyllabic bashing of the very industry and medium that made their careers possible, and they did it over a backdrop of swirling pull-off licks, distorted bass, and tour de force drumming that was somehow still catchy. Their encore? The next year they pilloried modern society at large with “Tom Sawyer”—a chops-laden, darkly futuristic anthem that even hardcore deriders of prog can’t help but dig.

Today, Rush is arguably the longest running, most original, and most influential progressive rock band ever. Their influence can be heard in major bands ranging from Pantera to Smashing Pumpkins, Primus, Death Cab for Cutie, the Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, and countless others. And yet, through innumerable musical fads they’ve remained staunchly committed to big ideas, grand arrangements, and stellar, instantly identifiable musicianship—rich, unorthodox chording, odd-meter riffing, and ethereal solos from Lifeson, and a finger-busting mix of Jack Bruce’s beef, Jaco Pastorius’ finesse, and a funk master’s groove from Lee. But they’ve also been flexible and open-minded enough to not come across as stagnant and stubborn. In the process, they’ve managed to get more radio play than just about any of their peers, scoring bona fide hits with songs like “Fly by Night,” “Closer to the Heart,” “Freewill,” “Limelight,” and the aforementioned classics. But even when their collective open-mindedness led to sonic evolutions that didn’t sit well with some longtime fans—specifically, the synth-heavy output from 1982–1989 that seemed to push Lifeson into a more atmospheric and textural approach—the band has remained unapologetically forward-looking.

With the release of this year’s Clockwork Angels, the Canadian legends prove they haven’t changed their devil-may-care attitude one bit. A steampunk concept album that finds the band bringing subtle keyboard and piano elements back into the mix, Clockwork is chock-full of classic Rush hallmarks—from Lifeson’s gloriously echoing, “Limelight”- like solo in “The Anarchist” to Lee’s jaw-droppingly nimble-fingered breakdown in “Caravan” and the newfound fire in Peart’s drum work. But there are also fresh elements that make it perhaps the band’s most listenable outing in years. Lee’s singing, particularly on the beautifully simple “The Garden,” exhibits more control and nuance than on any other Rush record, and several songs are augmented with lush string arrangements.

We spoke to Lee and Lifeson at the tail end of the seven-week rehearsals for their current world tour about everything from the writing and recording of Clockwork to the secrets of their longevity and their extreme gear nerdery—from Lee’s Orange amps and ’72 Jazz-bass fetish to Lifeson’s recent addiction to Marshall Silver Jubilee amps.

Was there anything unusual about how you recorded Clockwork Angels?
Lee:
Only in the sense that, listening back to [2007’s] Snakes and Arrows, I saw a record that we probably had more overdubs than we needed. I think that comes from underestimating the fullness of the sound of the three of us playing. So, having the benefit of touring quite a bit from the time we made that record, and to play some of the new material that we’d written on tour, we learned a lot about ourselves. I think the live experience has informed our writing over the last few years. This album is a direct result of that.

You’re not talking about overdubs of things like solos, though. You’re talking about layers— numbers of overlapping parts.
Lee:
Yeah, layers. We just had this tendency to hear music in a dense way, and I think that even though we streamlined the way we were writing, we were choking some of the parts—some of the interesting stuff was being obscured by too many parts. So when we approached this record, that was very much in the back of our minds. If we were going to have an overdub, we better have a damn good reason.

That said, Alex, you’ve really perfected the art of layering guitars with different timbres and tonalities. How much of that do you hear when you’re writing tunes, and how much of it comes to you as you’re into the track up to your elbows in the studio?
Lifeson:
A lot of it does come to me beforehand. I hear a lot of things—and then, once I start exploring, I hear a lot of other things [laughs]. But that’s the real fun for me. I can sit and do that sort of thing for hours and hours and hours. I’m always looking for something that nobody’s ever heard or trying to take a sound and modify it in a way that’s fresh and different.

Some of the new songs—like the title track—have a really live, spontaneous feel. Did you track any parts together this time?
Lifeson:
Sometimes, but not very often. Typically, Ged and I will work in [Apple] Logic with a drum machine or samples, and then we’ll give that to Neil and he’ll work on his drum arrangements, and then we’ll develop it from there. But with this record, we gave him the music and there ended up being a lot of changes in the lyrics as we went along. When it came to actually recording, Nick [Raskulinecz, co-producer] wanted to record off the floor from the first day forward—which was really unusual and a big surprise for Neil, but he embraced it and ended up loving it. His playing is just a lot wilder and less thought out. It’s more reactive to music that, in a lot of ways, he’s hearing for the first time. Nick really prodded him to take different approaches—so it was really quite a palette. Consequently, when he’d get drum tracks done at the end of the day, we’d import them back into Logic, and then redo our parts to what he’d done, and we’d bounce back and forth like that a couple of times … sometimes four or five versions. And then, once those drum parts were established, we’d go in and redo all our parts.


Alex Lifeson basks in the echoing glory of his favorite new signature Les Paul at a September 18 show in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “I gravitated to [it] for probably 60 percent of the record,” he says.

This is the way we’ve worked for a long time—we seldom work off the floor. For us, it’s much more efficient and pleasurable to work in this manner where we have our own space in the studio, we can focus on what we’re doing, and you’re not doing take after take after take because somebody slipped up somewhere and you have to go back and start over again. We’ve tried doing it live, and it’s kind of fun—and I understand the merit in it—but for the complexity of our music and the focus that’s required, it’s much more efficient to work this way. We’re all there—everybody’s in the studio at the same time, and everybody’s a cheerleader—but the actual performances work better this way. Once you’re used to is, it’s just as satisfying as playing live, but it’s easier because you’re not struggling to hear yourself and all those things that just defeat the purpose of why you’d do it live anyway. If you’re going to do it off the floor, you better do the take perfectly right from the start.

Did that new MO about minimizing overdubs affect Alex’s parts primarily, or did it also affect bass lines?
Lee:
If you’re limiting the amount of keyboards you’re going to use—which seemed to be a mandate early on [laughs]—then it falls down to the guitar player to fill out the sound. I thought we could get away without that, and Alex agreed a hundred percent. By the same token, he had strong feelings about my layering: For a few records there, I was really layering my voice with multipart harmonies all the time, and he wanted to see a more direct approach with my vocals this time—less harmony, or at least just very specifically used harmony.

Did that change in how you approached the vocals affect how you approached the bass parts?
Lee:
Not really. The bass kind of goes where it needs to to make the song vibrant—what the role of the bass is changes from song to song. In some moments in the song, “The Anarchist,” for example, that bass melody holds that chorus together. So that was driving the chorus, and when I wrote the vocal melody it really had more to do with how those lyrics needed to be expressed, and I found to my dismay [laughs] when I came to rehearse them, that they were very difficult to do at the same time. I feared that bass line, and I made sure I went into rehearsal extra early this year. I’m a big believer in the 10,000-hour series—I put a lot of hours into that!

In the past, I wrote bass patterns that were connected to the vocals in a way that allowed me to do it live without killing myself or tying my brain into a pretzel, but this time I kind of let that go because I just felt it was better for the music to go where it needed to, and worry about the best possible vocal melody for the song afterwards. So that’s how it came together—as two separate players: Me, as a bass player on this album, was a separate guy than me as a singer.

Was that bass part in “The Anarchist” difficult because of the physicality of the fingering or because of the conflicting harmonies and rhythms?
Lee:
It’s the syncopation—or the lack of syncopation. Rhythmically, the way the bass drives and the way the vocal sits on it are really quite different.

In the intro to “Clockwork Angels,” it sounds like the synth intro to “The Camera Eye” [from Moving Pictures] is playing backward in the background. There’s also an ascending, flanged unison riff near the beginning of “The Anarchist” that sounds like a nod to “Red Barchetta.” Are these intentional nods to the past, or is it just a coincidence due to the fact that it’s coming from the same guys?
Lee:
No, there are some not-so-subtle nods to the past, like, in “Headlong Flight”—which is a very obvious “Bastille Day” redux—but what you’re describing I think is just coincidence.

Geddy Lee's Gear

John “Skully” McIntosh, bass tech for Geddy Lee for the past three years, was on hand to take care of both the basses and guitars during the Clockwork Angels sessions. Here he details Lee’s main gear for the new album and tour.

All That Jazz
Lee’s No. 1 bass is a black ‘72 Fender Jazz bass “that has been seen time and time again, onstage and in photos, and to which all other bass guitars are compared,” McIntosh says. “This instrument carries most of the weight during the show.”

The pickups are original, though the bridge pickup was rewound to virtually original specs by Tom Brantley at Mojo Tone in North Carolina in 2010. That same year, it was outfi tted with its third neck—a maple Fender Custom Shop version with a 9" radius, white binding, and aged pearl block inlays. According to McIntosh, it has “a little more mass than the typical Geddy Lee-style neck,” and like all of Lee’s basses, the back of the neck has a rubbed oil fi nish. It’s set up very straight, with extremely low string height and fast action. The medium-weight alder body features an aged pearl pickguard custom-engraved by James Hogg with the alchemical symbol for amalgamation. Says McIntosh, “All the touring basses have scratch plates engraved and paint-fi lled by James with various alchemical symbols.” Like all of Lee’s Jazz basses, No. 1 has a Badass II bridge.

Lee’s No. 2 bass is a sunburst ‘72 Fender Jazz with a neck made by Mike Bump at the Fender Custom Shop in 2011. It’s used as his main backup and for “Seven Cities of Gold” and “Wish Them Well” off the new album. Like No. 1, it has a 9"-radius maple fretboard, but the binding and block inlays are black. Its pickups were made by Brantley at Mojo Tone and are based on No. 1’s.

When performing “Bravado” (from Roll the Bones), Lee plays a black ’74 Jazz with a neck just like that on his No. 1. “It has the original pickups,” McIntosh says mysteriously, “but with a little voodoo inside to get just a little something more out of them.” All three ’70s basses have the original tuners and string trees.

Lee’s “elegant” candy apple red Fender Custom Shop Jazz bass has an ash body with a maple cap. It has a slightly narrower neck than his ’70s basses, but still has a 9"-radius maple fretboard. “This bass has been around for a while and has Custom Shop pickups in a ’60s-style spacing,” McIntosh explains. Lee uses it for “2112,” as well as “Halo Effect,” “The Wreckers,” and “The Garden” from Clockwork. His backup for the red Jazz is a sunburst Fender Geddy Lee signature bass.

For “The Pass” (from 1989’s Presto), Lee plays a D-tuned black Jazz bass assembled from parts—including a Mike Bump-built Custom Shop neck and pickups by Tom Brantley. McIntosh says Lee also recently received a new Custom Shop surf green Jazz bass built by Jason Smith that will be used on four songs.

All of Lee’s basses, regardless of tuning, are strung with Rotosound Swing Bass RS66LD (.045–105) sets, and they’re outfitted with Levy’s Leathers straps and Jim Dunlop Straploks.

A Clockwork Orange ... and Sansamp, Palmer, and Avalon
McIntosh says Lee’s Clockwork tour amplification rig is unlikely to change much from the previous tour. “However, you can never count out the possibility of a change or addition of a piece of gear. The bass rig is an ongoing evolution that will never cease.”

Lee’s signal goes through a Shure UHF-R system that’s switched via a Kitty Hawk MIDI Looper to an Axess Electronics splitter. “From there, the signal goes out in parallel to a SansAmp RPM preamp, a Palmer PDI- 05 speaker simulator, an Avalon U5 DI, and an Orange AD200 MK3 amplifier—which, in turn, drives another Palmer PDI-05. A Rivera RockCrusher power attenuator provides a load for the Orange. These four lines then run direct to the P.A.” Lee and McIntosh prefer running the Orange with new-oldstock GE 6550 power tubes. “They have a little less warmth than the [JSC Svetlana] ‘winged Cs,’” McIntosh explains, “but they have more clarity and sparkle in the high end, which works better with the high-gain distortion setting we run the amp with.”

For the Clockwork Angels sessions, an Orange 4x10 cabinet was mic’d in place of the second Palmer and RockCrusher used on the road, but McIntosh says that, on the current tour, Lee isn’t using speaker cabinets in his bass rig. Further, the band isn’t using any monitors onstage other than the subs that augment the Logitech Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors they all wear.

“On tour, this arrangement is supplemented by Brad Madix at F.O.H. [front of house mixing] and Brent Carpenter on monitors,” says McIntosh, “who each add a fifth channel of tweed-Bassman-flavored amp modeling through the console." McIntosh also says that, other than subtle changes dialed in by Madix or Carpenter, Lee’s bass-rig settings do not change from song to song.

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