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Interview: Rush's Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee

Interview: Rush's Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee

How do you choose when and what to reference in those nods to your back catalog—is it just spur-of-the-moment studio cheekiness?
Yeah, it’s a bit of cheek. But, also—like with “Headlong Flight”—it was kind of an accident: Alex and I were jamming, and we go, “Oh, [expletive]—did we just rewrite “Bastille Day”? [Laughs.] Because we had assembled that into a complete instrumental song at that point, and at first we were happy to let it be kind of a cheeky nod to the past. So the song was finished, but then I got lyrics from Neil and realized that, at this part of the story, [the protagonist of the album’s storyline] is looking back over his life and thinking back over his life—thinking about things that he regrets, things he doesn’t regret—and the main line is “I wish that I could live it all again.” So, it seemed oddly appropriate that we were reminding ourselves of where we’d been, too.

Alex, how did you get that choppy effect on the guitar at the beginning of “Clockwork Angels”?
That’s from one of the plug-ins I use. It was doing this funny thing where, when you’d go through the song and then stop and go back to the beginning and hit play, that effect would happen. It’s not recorded as part of the file, but it’s like an artifact or a regeneration of the plug-in that would always happen unless you went to the end of the song and ended it. We kind of got off on it, and Nick loved it, so he said, “Let’s start the song with that thing!” I used an atmospheric Guitar Rig plug-in for the “As if to fly … ” section just before the bridges, too.

Which guitars did you use on that song?
I used my ’76 ES-355 for all the verses—I love playing that guitar, and it sounds really, really good. It’s such a ballsy, woodsy sound. I used that quite a bit on the whole album. I used my Gibson J-150 for the slide at the end of the solo. I used a ’59 Tele reissue for most of the clean stuff on the album, like the cleaner bridge parts of that song, and then the Les Paul on the “As if to fly” parts.

The openings of “Carnies” and “Wish Them Well” have some of the most ferocious guitar tones on the album—the latter has a bit of a snarling, Angus Young vibe to it.
We were going for that big, open rock vibe with “Wish Them Well.” That song went through three complete rewrites. We just weren’t happy with it as we went along, but finally it came together and had the kind of vibe that we wanted at that point in the record. I think I used my ’59 Les Paul for that. It was really a lot of fun to record that, because there are those big, open rock chords, and Neil’s drumming is just so straight ahead.

On “Carnies,” it’s riffy at the beginning, which I quite enjoy, and then there’s the choruses. And there, again, I used a Guitar Rig plug-in on one of the guitars, and it sounded a bit like a carousel.

Was it a rotary-speaker plug-in?
It’s in their special-effects listing, and it’s called “Soundtrack” or something like that. It has so much junk on it—it has sort of a rotary sound, and it fades in and out, and it’s manipulated in so many ways. I was drawn to it because it had the sound of a merry-go-round …

So it sort of mimicked the chaos and craziness of a carnival …
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

The intro to “BU2B2” has a bit of a spaghetti-Western vibe with the acoustic and the slow, tremolo’d electric—that’s a new feel for a Rush album.
Oh, yeah that—I forgot about that! [Laughs.] That was fun to do. We were in L.A. mixing the record, and we wanted to insert this little bit of a lyric or a presence that Neil wanted to have in there, and we thought, “How can we add to it without taking away, and make it something different—but not another song?” So we recorded that in my hotel room, Geddy and I. We stuck the mic outside and recorded the morning traffic and sounds of Los Angeles from our hotel room, and then I did the acoustic tracks and threw a vocal track on it.

The tremolo-picked chords in the verses of “The Wreckers” are also sort of a new feel for you guys—there’s a hint of romantic, traditional Italian or French music. What inspired that?
We struggled to get something to feel right in those verses. I was playing arpeggios and block chords, and everything sounded clumsy and nothing was working. After a few hours of experimenting, I just turned the volume down a little bit and we got a shimmery sound, and I just did this fast strumming. It seemed to fit the mood really, really well. It didn’t get in the way of anything, and it provided a nice foundation for Geddy and Neil—and the lyric, especially.

Let’s talk gear for a bit. Geddy, you have a history of being pretty adventurous with bass choices—from the Rickenbacker doubleneck you used on “Xanadu” to your Steinberger and Wal basses in the ’80s. Even though you’ve been relying on Fender Jazz basses for the last several years, have any new, off-the-beaten-path instruments caught your eye recently?
I’m pretty hardcore Fender right now. I’ve had a few instruments given to me that I’ve played with. I’ve got a beautifully made Spector bass that I’ve played around with and quite like, but it doesn’t sound like how I want to sound right now. Aside from that, not really—I’ve just been getting deep into Fender land.

Do you ever break out those old basses—the Rick, the Steinberger, or the Wals?
I do. For this album I pulled a lot of things out to see what they would sound like. In fact, we got very heavily into the differences between Fenders themselves—because I have a lot of different kinds of Jazzes. Skully—John McIntosh, my tech—has been working with Fender to put together different kinds of pickups. At one point, before we started recording, we actually had five different vintage Jazz basses, and we were A/B’ing them with the exact same riffs, just to get into the nuances of how different they sounded. And they do sound quite different—even though, to the layman, it might be quite esoteric—but we quite noticed all the differences and used them appropriately on this album. I used about four different Fenders while making this record.

What can you tell us about those four?
My No. 1 Jazz bass is from ’72, and I used that on the majority of the songs. I have another ’72 that I found recently in a shop in Toronto. We cleaned that up and Skully put a different set of pickups in it, and it has a bit more of a raw sound—a little less deep and a bit more alive—and I used that on “Seven Cities of Gold” and “Wish Them Well.” I really like it—I’m playing it live, as well. It doesn’t quite have the punch in the bottom end that my No. 1 has, but it’s got a nice midrange growl to it.

I also have a red Fender Custom Shop Jazz bass that I use that, for some reason, just has a deeper tone and a little less spiky top end—or more elegant top end. I guess “elegant” is a weird word to use in a rock band, but anyway … [laughs] I use that for some of the softer things, like “The Wreckers” and “The Garden.” And then I also have a ’74 Jazz bass that I found, and it has a really interesting sound. It’s deep, kind of like my original ’72, but it doesn’t quite have all the same attributes. I’m using all of those live, as well [see sidebar for a complete list of Lee’s gear].

Is your No. 1 1972 bass stock?
Pretty much. We’ve tweaked the pickups over the years—only when they kind of break—but I try to keep it as true as possible to the original instrument.

Is it just a coincidence that your two favorite basses are ’72s, or have you pinpointed something about Jazzes from that year that you really like?
Well, I’ve had such a hard time replicating the sound I get out of my [first] ’72 that I’ve been looking for another bass from that period to see if they match. So I found this other ’72, which happens to be a sunburst. They use different wood, usually, when it’s a sunburst than when it’s a painted body—obviously for the grain. But these two are only a few hundred numbers away from each other, in terms of their serial numbers, so it’s very odd to me that they don’t sound exactly the same, and the only thing I can put it down to is the wood and the aging of the wood.

Alex, how long have you had the Tele you used for the clean parts on the new album—and is it all stock?
I’ve had that one for about 20 years, and it’s got a Badass bridge, and the neck has been sanded down to bare wood. I think the pickups are stock, though.

Did you find yourself gravitating to one or two specific guitars for the whole album, or was it all over the map?
It’s funny—I got one of my All Axcess [Les Paul] models that they’d done in black, and it was one of those guitars where you go, “Holy shit—this thing sounds amazing!” I like the way they all sound—I’m very happy with them and we worked really hard to make a really good guitar—but this thing just sounded so good through every amp I had in the studio. I gravitated to that guitar for probably 60 percent of the record.

Geddy Lee plays his No. 1 ’72 Jazz bass while working a Korg MPK-130 MIDI Pedal Keyboard housed in a retro-sci-fi custom pedalboard case.

Does it have the same specs as your other signature guitars?
It’s funny. After I played it for a bit, I emailed Pat Foley at Gibson and I said, “Pat, what’s up with this guitar? It sounds amazing!” And he said that sometimes it’s just the combination of the wood and the way it’s all put together, but he also said they wanted to do a small run of solid-color models. There were requests for that, but sometimes you also get an imperfection in the finish of one of the translucent ones, so they do a solid color on it to save the guitar. Something happens with the solid colors—there’s more paint on it, and maybe that has something to do with it, but everything else is the same. Whatever it is, it just has a nice growl to it. It translates really well—you really get a sense of the pick against the strings. It’s got that little grit to it.

So Alex, you mainly used the Tele, the 355, and the black Axcess Les Paul?
Yeah, but I probably used 20 guitars on the record [see sidebar for a complete list]. I used a beautiful PRS electric 12-string—it sounds fantastic and is so lovely to play. I had the Ricky 12-string, which is exactly the opposite. It’s a nasty, angry guitar that does not want to stay in tune and bites my fingers—but it looks so cool! [Laughs.]

Let’s switch to amplification. Geddy, did you use DI boxes and amps in the studio?
Yeah. I used a whole combination of devices, and I bring them up on separate inputs. I use a Palmer speaker simulator on one input, a SansAmp RPM on another, and the Orange amplifiers on the other. Basically, I set it to “stun” in the room!

How does your touring rig differ from what you used in the studio?
It’s pretty much the same. Brad Madix, our front-of-house sound guy, has all those separate rails, and he can mix and match them according to the song.

Alex, you’ve been a pretty stalwart Hughes & Kettner guy for a while now. Did you use them again for this album?
No, I didn’t. I made a change this year. I used a Marshall Silver Jubilee 2553. It’s a 25-/50-watt amp from the ’80s. I also used one of the new Mesa/Boogie Mark Five heads—it’s got, like, nine amps in it. I loved the way that sounded for all the clean stuff. I also had a 50-watt Marshall, Marshall 2x12 combos that I got way back in the ’80s, a Bogner, and other stuff.

I’ve used Hughes & Kettner gear for quite a few years, and I love their equipment. It’s excellent, and they’re great people to work with, but I felt that after so many years it was time for a change. I really wanted my guitar sound to be a little different this tour. So I started out with that setup—the Boogie and the Marshall, with a Hughes & Kettner Coreblade to augment some different effects. And then Skully found this company [Mojo Tone] that handwires amps in North Carolina, and they built me an amp called the Lerxst Omega—Lerxst is my nickname—and we based it on what I liked about that Marshall. It sounds fantastic. Really nice saturation, great warmth. I’m really, really happy with it. I think part of the reason I got tired of Hughes & Kettner is that we were running three channels in the one amp, and I was finding that when I was switching between the channels I was getting some noise—thumps—and after hearing the Marshall I thought the sound was a little bit thin, a little processed compared to a screaming, single-purpose amp. I understand that that’s a bit of a compromise, and it’s certainly no reflection on the Hughes & Kettner gear, but it was time for a change for me.

Did you use the Lerxst Omega in the studio, or is it just for the tour?
No, that didn’t come out until we were in our final stage of rehearsal. I used the Marshall for the primary rehearsals for six weeks, and then that arrived and, sadly, the Marshall now resides in a case somewhere [laughs].

So which amps are you taking on the road?
I’m taking the Lerxst and a backup, a Mesa/Boogie Mark Five and a backup, and a Coreblade with a backup. I’m also using [Apple] MainStage, so I’m accessing all the Guitar Rig plug-ins and Universal Audio plug-ins—which, by the way, are just awesome plug-ins.

One more gear question: Alex, you’ve always been a purveyor of gorgeous washes of delay. What’s your favorite delay device right now?
Right now I’m using Fractal Audio Axe-Fx IIs for just about all of the outboard effects. I have two delay patches, two other patches—one for reverb and one for reverb/pitch [changing]. And for forever I’ve been using the TC Electronic 1210 [Spatial Expander + Stereo Chorus/Flanger], and I love it. I’m using that for my phasing and flanging, and using the Fractal for the chorus.

Alex Lifeson's Gear

Black Les Paul Axcess signature model, black Les Paul Custom, goldtop Gibson Les Paul, 1976 Gibson ES-355, red Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess, sunburst Les Paul Axcess signature model, ’59 Fender Telecaster reissue, Martin 12-string acoustic (tuned to D–A–D–A–A–D for “The Pedlar”), Larrivée acoustic (for slide on “The Pedlar”), Gibson ES-345, Gibson J-150 acoustic, Gibson Les Paul Junior, 1958 Gibson Les Paul Standard, Gibson ES-175 (in Nashville tuning for “Wish Them Well”), Taylor acoustic (in Nashville tuning for “The Wreckers”), 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, Three Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess signature models, ’76 Gibson ES-355, one Gibson Les Paul Custom, one Gibson ‘58 Les Paul reissue, one Gibson ‘59 Les Paul reissue with a Floyd Rose, one Gibson Les Paul Custom with a Floyd Rose, one Fender Custom Shop Telecaster

Electro-Harmonix Big Muff (for “The Anarchist” solo), MXR Flanger, MXR analog delay, Boss Flanger, Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, Boss Compressor Three Fractal Audio Axe-Fx IIs, TC Electronic 1210 Spatial Expander + Stereo Chorus/Flanger, two Apple 2.6 GHz MacBook Pros running Apple MainStage UAD plug-ins and Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5, two Universal Audio Apollo QUAD audio interfaces, Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Rack Module wah

Marshall Silver Jubilee 2553 head, 50-watt Marshall reissue 1987X plexi head, tall vintage Marshall 4x12, Mesa/Boogie Mark Five head, Marshall 1960X 4x12 reissue, Matchless Clubman, Hughes & Kettner straight-front 4x12, Roland JC-120, Marshall Club and Country combo (used to drive a 4x12), Bogner Uberschall, 18-watt Marshall combo, Vox open-back 4x12 cab, Two custom Lerxst Omega 50-/25-watt heads based on Marshall 2553 and 2550 Silver Jubilee heads (built by Steve Snyder at Mojo Tone), two Mesa/Boogie Mark Five heads, two Hughes & Kettner Coreblade heads, three Palmer PDI- 03 speaker simulators

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Dean Markley electric strings (.010–.046 and .010–.052 sets), Dean Markley acoustic strings (.012–.054 sets), Jim Dunlop medium picks, George L’s cables, Dean Markley electric strings (.010–.046 and .010–.052 sets), Jim Dunlop medium picks, George L’s cables, Levy’s Leathers straps, Embrace guitar stands, three RJM Music IS-8 input selectors, four dual Audio-Technica AEW-R5200 wireless units, two RJM Music Amp Gizmos, one Mesa/Boogie High-Gain Amp Switcher, Behringer MultiGate Pro XR4400 Quad Expander/Gate, RJM Music Effect Gizmo, one Furman AR-PRO AC line-voltage regulator

Okay, let’s talk bigger-picture stuff. Geddy, how would you describe Alex’s evolution as a musician up to this point?
I think he’s underappreciated for the kind of complexity he brings to his guitar playing. Not only is he an amazing soloist—and always has been—but he’s developed a very interesting rhythmic and harmonic style of chord creation. He’s constantly searching for ways of bringing more musicality into the chord itself, and he’s always experimenting with different tunings. I think he’s evolved into a very interesting and deep guitarist. Y’know, we grew up in a period when it was all about the soloist—he loved Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore and all those guys—and of course he was very influenced by that and became a great soloist. But when you’re playing in a three-piece band, you have to develop good chops to help fill in the sound, be able to spread the chord out. And that’s kind of pushed him to develop a great sense of arpeggiation and developing the technical side, where he’s got all these layers of guitar sounds that he can draw upon to sound like more than one guitarist while he’s playing.

Alex, same question for you about Geddy.
As a singer, he’s evolved in many ways. He’s really become a singer. In the early days—and, again, it was a different time, a different physicality—he screamed more, he hit those high notes. That was the unique quality he had in the way he sang and how he delivered lyrics. Now I’m more drawn into the way he sings, particularly on this record. There’s something that’s very compelling in his singing—the nuances, how he translates lyrics into vocal parts. It’s really a skill, and I get to watch it all the time. He works really, really hard on it.

As a bass player, he’s always been amazing [laughs]. He blows me away when I sit and watch him play. I wouldn’t know how to quantify his evolution and development, because I think he’s always been very busy, he’s always been all over the place—but at the same time, he knows when to pull it back and, y’know, sit down and let everything circle around him.

Final question: In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Neil mused a bit about how much longer he can pound the drums with the sort of stamina that Rush requires. It seems ridiculous to think there will be a day anytime soon when he can’t crush most drummers on the planet, but what do you see for yourself whenever that day comes?
I didn’t see that interview, but I know what he’s getting at: How much longer can we go out there and play three-hour shows at that peak level. And I can see it in him. Last night, we were at the end of a very long day of rehearsing—I don’t think we’ve ever worked so hard prepping for a tour, we’ve really put in a serious amount of hours—and I could see he was tired. We were almost three hours into the set, and we were deciding whether to do one or two or three songs in the encore, and there comes a point when you just have to accept that you’re approaching 60 and that maybe three hours of blistering rock is for a younger man. That’s what he’s getting at. So maybe it’s just inevitable that Rush tours down the road—if all goes well and there are Rush tours—aren’t three hours long [laughs].

Lifeson: That’s a very valid, prurient question. We’re thinking about this all the time. Every time we go to rehearsals, I think, “Wow, this has really been hard work this time. Why has it been so difficult?” And I know why it’s been difficult—it’s not the physicality so much as it is the mental work required to put Clockwork Angels together, plus all this other material we’re doing, plus working with a string section—two cellos and six violins—which, by the way, is absolutely awesome. But, y’know, it’s hard for him. We’ve been rehearsing for seven weeks, and I think we’ve had four, maybe five days off in that period—plus, he started rehearsing a month before we did. So he’s been playing constantly for months now. He’s going to be 60 next week, and it is a huge toll. I mean, he has an amazing stamina and he’s a very strong individual, but what he does is very, very difficult and very demanding. Hopefully, we’ll get through this tour with no problems—I’d like to think that we will, and that’s certainly our plan.

But eventually, one day, we’re not going to be able to do it anymore. That’s a reality, and I don’t think we should get too caught up in it. When it happens it happens, and that’s it. We’ve had a great run, we’ve left a great legacy that we’re proud of, and who knows what’ll come after that? I mean, I think my fingers will still work for a little while longer [laughs]. I like to do stuff at home, to work with other people and continue to be musical, but there are other things in life, too—especially when you’ve dedicated so much of your life to touring. There’s no doubt that we absolutely love what we do, and we know that we’re very, very fortunate to have been able to do this. But eventually it does come to an end. I don’t want to be 70 years old jumping around onstage. Maybe if we’re still making great music, sure. But I kind of doubt it by that point. Most 70-year-old rock musicians I see now are not really that enjoyable to watch.

Plus, even though Neil is 60, most 25-year-olds can’t play what he plays.
Well, yeah … [laughs].

Lifeson: I agree with you—and most don’t. Maybe he was being reflective. Y’know, he has a young daughter, and we all have given up a lot being on the road, away from our families. I have two grandsons who I adore and love being with as much as I can be, and I’m fortunate that they feel the same way—so it kills me to be away from them. And I know it kills him to be away form his daughter and miss those formative years, and it’s tough for her, as well. So these things kind of eat away at you. But, at the same time, you feel a responsibility to your art and your partners, and so you do it.

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