Interview with Alex Lifeson (Rush)

It’s been a long time coming but the new Rush album Clockwork Angels is well worth the wait. Mick Burgess caught up with Rush lead guitarist Alex Lifeson to chat about the album and the forthcoming world tour.

In a few weeks’ time your latest album Clockwork Angels will be released. Are you looking forward to finally getting it out?

Yeah, it’s been a long project. We released a couple of songs before the last tour and that’s the first time that we’ve done something like that where we’ve recorded a couple of songs from a record that hasn’t been released yet. It was kind of fun to get those songs out, to work them and play them and have a peek into what the project was going to be. It was great for getting us back into writing which we did last fall where we got into the bulk of the writing and where the whole story started to come together. That’s where we got a sense of where the album was going.

You once said that the recording of Moving Pictures was a difficult process as was Hemispheres. How do you feel about Clockwork Angels? Has this been a fairly smooth record to make?

It was. The only funny thing about it was that it was so spread out. We did little spurts here and there but once we got into the meat of it, it was really a joy to make. We had a great time and had a lot of fun making it and it was very vibrant in the studio. It was great working with Nick Raskulinecz. He is such a music lover, so enthusiastic. He’s such a great presence to be around in the studio.

Clockwork Angels sees you really spreading your wings. There’s elements of vintage Rush in there with complex arrangements and mood changes while keeping that contemporary feel of your later albums. Was this the plan when you first started discussing ideas with Geddy?

I don’t know really. I’m never sure what the plan is. We sort of start on the day and it takes its shape and we kind of go with it. I think probably with this record, we really wanted to play and wanted to stretch out a little bit. We wanted to have fun playing and also to strip things down a little. I think Snakes & Arrows in retrospect was a little bit dense because it was written on acoustic guitar which played a major role in the production. We layered a lot of acoustics and electrics and I think we got just a little cloudy at times. I really like the record but with hindsight of living with it for a while we realised that we kind of overcooked it a bit.

Clockwork Angels is really a step or two on from Snakes & Arrows then?

Yeah, we really wanted to strip it down and have more of a three-piece feel to it. There’s no rhythm guitar during the guitar solos and such like which are things you end up doing as you like the sound of it because you like all the colour but it’s not always necessary and I think the album comes across as a lot more powerful as a result.

The album is very rhythmical and the interplay between Geddy’s bass and Neil’s drums is very tight. Do you bring complete musical ideas to Neil complete with your click tracks and then does he go away and develop the drum patterns?

Yes, very much so like that. When we write we tend to do it with a very basic drum pattern using samples or some sort of drum software and in fact when we’re jamming it’s usually to a click track just to give us a bit of a tempo but it’s hard to be too imaginative with a click track. We tend to jam a bunch of different things then piece it together with a utilitarian drum pattern while we develop the music and then we put the vocals on. I’ll then go back and redo the drum pattern with a more up to date version and that’s what we present to Neil and sometimes he takes some of those ideas and applies them to his arrangement.

It must be difficult trying to convey your drumming ideas to Neil although Nick, your producer, does have a unique style of air drumming complete with sound effects. He must have the best nickname (Booujzhe) around and that was earned from those drumming sound effects?

Ha, ha yes!! He’s always air drumming or air guitaring or whatever and bouncing around the control room and that was one of his favourite sayings “Play this, play this…. dumph, dumph, daaa, booujze!!!” with booujze being the emphatic note.

He must feel very proud to be bestowed with an honorary Rush nickname as there’s not many with one of those?

That’s true, I think he quite likes it.

What guitars are you using on the album this time as in the past you’ve used Gibson Les Pauls, Fenders, PRS guitars and the great Gibson ES-355?

I use the 355, my trusty Telecaster, I have a couple of new Axcess models of the Les Paul, that Gibson and I developed a couple of years ago and they are such a sweet sounding guitar and a couple of older Les Pauls that I had and that’s about it. I did pull out my PRS 12-string for a couple of things but generally I stuck with those.

Talking of your older guitars. When you’re onstage do you sense the excitement in the crowd when you and Geddy pull out your double necked guitars from time to time?

Yeah, they’re very popular. We haven’t used them in quite some time, maybe we’ll pull them out for the next tour.

You must be the only band where your instruments are welcomed like celebrities on the stage?

Ha, I think we must be!

Your guitar work throughout especially on the likes of “Clockwork Angels” and “Wish Them Well” is your most inventive for a while. Did you bring those solos to the writing process complete or were they a result of a spontaneous jam?

It’s funny because the solo in “Clockwork Angels” and also the solo in “The Garden” which are two of my favourite solos that I’ve ever done, were throwaway solos. After we’d written those songs and worked on the arrangements, Geddy went away for a few days, so I continued working and filling things in a little bit and I threw down a couple of solos in just a few takes and that was it. The thing is that after a while they kind of grow on you and you don’t think about them when you’re doing them as they were so natural and spontaneous so those solos were two throwaways that I did very early on before those songs were really fully developed. With me, when I don’t think too much about what I’m doing that’s when I tend to do my best work.

Why did you decide to fade out the solo on “The Wreckers”?

Well there’s so much going on, there’s an orchestra playing, strings and keyboards stuff going on. The solo per se is not a flashy solo, it’s more a double stringed screen that exists under there so it’s more of a whole composition of sound rather than a straight ahead solo like in “Wish Them Well”. It just felt right to fade the solo out

“BU2B” and “Caravan” were released as singles last year and were played on your Time Machine tour. They also feature on your new album in a slightly different form. Have you re-recorded these from scratch or just added a few overdubs to the originals?

We just re-mixed them. We wanted them to have the same character mix wise as the rest of the record. Now they are much more attached to the whole album rather than being standalone tracks.

You had some trouble with “Wish Them Well”. It sounds as such an up-tempo, positive, relatively simple song compared to others on the album. Why was that so difficult for you to write and record?

We got a set of lyrics from Neil that we really liked and we tried to develop some musical ideas but it didn’t seem to be working. With the first version we had parts of it that we really liked but the longer we spent on it the less we liked it. We went ahead with a couple of the other songs and did the tour and then when we returned to it we decided to scrap the music. We felt the lyrics were strong and were important for the story. The music just was not happening so we developed a completely different thing and lived with that for a little while and that was still not getting us off. Finally we went with the approach that you can hear now which was much more strident.

Listening back to it now do you see a potential single there?

Possibly. I’m not the guy who you should ask about what should be a single as the first single off this record is seven and a half minutes long!! That’s the right way to be. A Rush single should be seven and a half minutes long. The thing about “Wish Them Well” is that the approach we settled on was a very classic, traditional sounding Rock song. The drums are really strident and marching along and the nature of the chords and the chord progressions makes for a Classic Rock sound.

“The Garden” has a wonderful string arrangement. That really makes the song. Who decided to bring the string section in?

We put down keyboard sample strings and we really liked it but we thought rather than use sampled strings we’d bring in a real orchestra and Geddy and I were the catalysts for that. He’s a real sucker for those sorts of things. We decided to bring the strings in and David Campbell did a great job on the arrangement. That really tugs at your heart. I think there’s something that’s really classic about that arrangement and really heartfelt. The song works really well as a closer, the final chapter of the story. That single cello note at the very end is very poignant.

Although you don’t usually have outtakes from albums you’ve made, do you have alternate takes that you cut when recording that may be released one day?

We have bits and pieces of ideas that are strictly just that and I’m sure they are things that won’t see the light of day but there’s not really any material left for a follow up release.

There’s a theme running through the lyrics on the album relating to a fictional world driven by steam, clockwork and alchemy. Was this inspired in part by the wonderful Time Machine stage show?

I think it’s probably the other way around. I think we knew where we were going with the SteamPunk aesthetic so having had “BU2B” and “Caravan” and having had the idea of developing the concept before the last tour it just made sense to take a preliminary step with that theme. Now we can more fully develop it for the next tour.

Can you sum up the story in a few words?

It’s complex in a micro way and in a macro way. It’s about a journey that we can all relate to.

This will tie in with a book too. When can we expect to see this?

Neil has been working with Kevin Anderson on this. The book is really Neil’s thing and the album is all of us and that’s what we’re focussed on right now. What Neil decides to do with the book is up to Neil so I’m not sure when you’ll see that.

Nick Raskulinecz produced again. He’s worked with artists such as the Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains, and Marilyn Manson. Did having someone young and in touch with current bands help to reinvigorate you as musicians?

To some extent yes. There’s something about the way Nick works, his enthusiasm is very infectious. He’s very instinctive and has great ears. We’ve come to really respect his opinion. He’s not always right but he’s never short on ideas and that’s always a good thing to have. I don’t think he wants to influence us by citing other bands or musicians. I think what he tries to do with all the artists he works with and I’ve spoken to a few, I played golf with Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains recently and he said the same thing, he brings what’s in you, out. The thing that makes you what you are is what he hunts for.

Terry Brown produced your albums from Fly By Night right up to Signals. How does Nick compare in his approach to production with Terry Brown?

He’s very different and that was a very different time for the band and we made nine records with Terry and it was a great experience but we came to a point where we needed to stretch our wings. We get into the habit of getting comfortable with the people that we work with and that’s evidenced by the different producers we worked with. We went back to Peter Collins, who produced Power Windows and Hold Your Fire then we went back and did Counterparts. I think it’s important to get out and learn from working with other people. We really enjoy working with Nick but we’ll see where we are with our next record. We might work with Nick again; someone else or we might want to work on our own.

The artwork as usual is stunning and Hugh Syme has really delivered. Do you all sit down together and discuss ideas or do you give him a brief remit and he goes away, does his work and brings them back to you?

Neil and Hugh work very close together at every stage of the development of the graphics. Hugh’s great for the detail like the 2112 time on the clock face. He’s such a great guy, very clever and the master of detail.

You’ve recently signed with Roadrunner Records after being with Atlantic since Presto and Mercury before that. Why the change and why Roadrunner?

The industry is changing so much and I think Atlantic Records has perhaps changed a lot too. Atlantic used to be THE Rock label and I don’t think it is any more. Roadrunner has become that label. It’s in the family, it’s a cousin of Atlantic. I think the feeling was, and it was a mutual feeling, that we would get better attention in a very difficult industry at Roadrunner. I have to say that it was the right decision. Being on Roadrunner is very different to being on Atlantic. We had lots of friends on Atlantic and friends that we dearly loved but a lot of the people that we got to know over the years are long gone now. Roadrunner were straight out of the gate working very, very hard particularly in the UK. We are very happy to work with them.

You’ll be putting the album out in the UK as a Classic Rock Fan Pack which includes a magazine, keyring and poster. Do you see this as a way of attracting people back to physical products and away from downloading?

Yeah, and the great thing about it is that it gives you something to look at when you’re listening to the record. It’s like back in those days where you’d have a beautiful album jacket in your hands. That whole tactile experience has gone from music and at least with the Fan Pack it gives you a little bit of an opportunity to have that again.

You already have dates booked for your North American tour from September through to December. Have you had any thoughts about the set list yet?

We’ve been throwing about setlists for the last couple of weeks and the length of the set is creeping up to over 4 hours so we’ll have to reign it in and fine tune it. There’ll be a good portion of new material and some older stuff that we’ll be revisiting that you haven’t heard in a long time. There’s also a couple that we haven’t played live before that we’re thinking about doing. There’s quite a few in contention for the final set list.

This year is the precentenary to 2112. Could this be a possibility?

You know, yes and no. It’ll be in there, in the big hat but we’re concentrating on our new tour right now and that’s all we can really think of directly if I can put it like that.

Your setlists change so much from tour to tour. Does this keep playing live fresh for you?

Oh yeah. We enjoy playing everything. When we put a set list together, obviously there’s some fan favourites and we have our favourites but I understand there are certain songs that we have to play that maybe we’re a little tired of but we put 100% effort into it every night. We try to mix the set list up with songs that we are really going to enjoy playing and that our fans are going to enjoy hearing. That’s the ideal. When you are around for as long as we have been you have such a wide variety of fans from the early period, the mid period and the later period, everybody has their favourites and everybody is thrilled about some songs that you play and a little disappointed about other songs and everybody has got their own idea of what that is. You can’t please everybody all of the time but we try our best.

Your R30 tour for your 30th anniversary is incredibly nearly 10 years ago which means R40 is just around the corner. For your 30th anniversary you released the Feedback album with covers of songs that influenced you in the early days. Have you considered how you’ll celebrate your 40th? How about new recordings of “Fancy Dancer”, “Bad Boy” and “Garden Road” which were early songs of yours but never released on album?

First of all to even imagine that we’re on the cusp of our 40th anniversary is crazy to us. We have so many things going on at the moment we haven’t had the time to even think about what we’ll do in two years’ time as we’ll be touring for the next year plus. The songs that you mention is an interesting idea but Neil wasn’t part of those songs but if we were doing R46 maybe we could include them.

Talking of the R30 tour that featured a song from every album but Presto. Why did you leave Presto out?

I don’t really know. We must have just missed it for some reason. I think maybe our minds and memories were going when we did that.

You’ve recently released the Sector box sets featuring remastered editions of all your albums including surround sound recordings of Signals. Fly By Night and A Farewell To Kings. Did you come across any difficulties in creating a surround sound album from records that were made in the ’70s and ’80s?

There was quite a lot missing. We have full albums missing. The master tapes for Permanent Waves, I just don’t think we have the masters for that record. That is typical of those days. Your recordings would stay at the studio where you last worked. You’d get home and the master tapes would go to be mastered and then the record was released and they would keep your masters as it was safer that way. When we did Permanent Waves, Trident kept the masters but they went bankrupt and everything disappeared so we don’t have the multi-track masters for that one. The same thing with the first record. There are takes missing. The original “Working Man” that’s on the album is missing but we have a second version that we did that’s slightly different and had a different solo with a wah-wah pedal and that’s the version that exists now but that’s not been a released version. There’s lots of stuff missing, there’s parts of 2112 missing. That’s the problem we have, some tapes have gone missing, some have degraded. Baking the tapes doesn’t necessarily fix them. What it does is it allows you to play the tapes through one time, if you’re lucky, so you have to make sure you get it and if you get something that sticks then you’re out of luck.

Have you recorded Clockwork Angels in surround sound for later release?

No we didn’t.

Talking of re-mastering your albums, Vapor Trails was quite a raw album which had quite a harsh sound. You remixed “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” for the Retrospective III compilation and they sounded fantastic and a lot warmer. Are you considering remixing that album?

We’ve been talking about it for years but every time we try to make a move on it something else comes up and because it’s a back burner issue it gets left. We were very close a while back and Rich was going to start remixing it when we finished this record but other things were slotted in but we’ll get to it one of these days.

You have the US dates booked, what about the UK and Europe? Could this be a possibility next year?

We’ve booked shows in the UK next May and we’ll be playing a few shows over there. We’re looking forward to getting back and playing in the UK again.

What other plans do you have in the pipeline? A follow up to your Victor solo album perhaps or are you totally focused on Rush for the foreseeable future?

There’s so much work to do for this tour. We finished mixing in mid-March and started on the production in February and there’s still a lot going on. Rehearsals start very soon and we’ll have a couple of months of rehearsals and we’ll be really well prepared for this tour. We have some film stuff to do too so it’ll keep us busy right through until well into the Fall of next year.

Rush release their new album Clockwork Angels as a Classic Rock Fan Pack on 11th June and on Roadrunner Records on 9th July.

Rush’s 5 date UK Tour starts on 22nd May 2013 in Manchester and ends 30th May in Glasgow. Tickets are available now from all the usual outlets.

Visit for more information.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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