[Modern Guitars Alex Lifeson Interview]
Back in early December I'd posted several preview excerpts from an interview with Alex Lifeson that Skip Daly had conducted for Modern Guitars magazine. Skip is the cofounder of BOS Music as well as the creator of the infamous Rush Petition site. The complete article is now online at this location. You can read several of the better excerpts below the fold but here's my brief summary of some of the highlights. Alex talked about his and the band's disappointment with how the Vapor Trails album was recorded. He also discussed the possibility of remixing the entire album because Richard Chycki's remixes of One Little Victory and Earthshine for Rush: Retrospective 3 turned out so well. Alex talked about the existence of some old pre-1974 tapes that might have some interesting stuff on them such as recordings of songs like Run Willie Run, Slaughterhouse, Garden Road and other songs that they wrote and played during the early bar days. He also pretty much debunked the rumor that the next tour would be their last, essentially reiterating what he had stated in his Toledo Blade interview and what Geddy had intoned in his Billboard interview. They also touched on songs that almost made recent set lists such as The Camera Eye and A Farewell to Kings and how sites such as the Rush Petition (which Skip created by the way) help influence their choices. Be sure to read the whole interview.
In this exchange Alex addresses the Vapor Trails remix/remaster:
SKIP: So, shifting to something more recent, are we going to see a remix or remaster of Vapor Trails?
Alex: You know, Rich Chycki just remixed a couple of the songs for the Retrospective that’s coming out [Retrospective III], and he did such a great job that we’re so tempted to just remix that album, because we’ve never been pleased with the mix, and particularly the mastering on it. It’s a dangerous precedent that you set by doing that, because you want to go back and re-do a bunch of things. We were never happy with that one – there are a lot of reasons for that. We’re to blame for a lot of that – the way we recorded it was very impulsive. We didn’t spend a lot of time on getting sounds, and we used a lot of the stuff that we did in the writing phase, rather than re-recording things. So, to maintain the pure energy of what those ideas were, we gave up a bit on the sonic end. But Rich just has this way of mixing and hearing this band that translates so well into our heads, and he did a great job. He remixed “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine”. They sound so big and powerful and heavy and thick…and round, whereas the original recordings are very compressed, and a little bright and scratchy. So we listened to those and we thought “well, look…what is the point in remixing it really? We would just be doing it for ourselves…and…so…well, ok why not - let’s do it!” So, we’re sort of toying with the idea, when we have some spare time, of just remixing that whole album, just for our own peace of mind.
SKIP: Well, I think the fans would love that. In fact, before I did this interview…there are a couple of Rush fan message boards that I hop on once in a while, and I mentioned that I’d be interviewing you, just to see if there were any questions that I hadn’t already thought to ask, and the one that was hands-down the winner was “will there be a remix of ‘Vapor Trails’?”
SKIP: Speaking for myself, I love that album, and I’m not so much an audiophile, but I know that a lot of people were complaining about it…I guess it’s kind of a trend in mastering these days, that everyone pushes the levels so high that everything ends up clipping and distorting.
Alex: Well, that’s exactly what happened, and it kills all of the dynamics. That record was a very emotional record for us, and it was very fragile. From the heavy stuff to the more melodic stuff, it was a very fragile representation of the band, in the way it was recorded. In mastering, unfortunately that’s exactly what happened. It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it. Anyways, it’s something that we’re thinking about. We’re kind of busy right now, we have our hands full. But it’s certainly something that, once we have some spare time, we could get Rich working on. He and I are doing a lot of stuff together these days.
Rich Chycki has been Rush's sound engineer for the last several years. Alex is referring to the remixes of One Little Victory and Earthshine that are appearing on the upcoming Rush: Retrospective 3 greatest hits package. The fact that Rich might be giving the entire Vapor Trails album that same treatment will be music to the ears of the extremely vocal Remaster Vapor Trails! crowd I'm sure.
In this next excerpt Skip asks Alex about the existence of early recordings from the vault:
SKIP: You need to allow me to “geek out” here for a moment - I’ve always been curious what live recordings might exist that have not seen light of day yet. Specifically, do you guys still have any recordings in the “vault”, even just board recordings, from the earliest days of the band, prior to Neil joining? I’ve got a couple books on the band that talk about old originals like “Slaughterhouse”, “Run Willie Run”, “Tale”, etc. Any chance we might get a “live from the Gasworks” official bootleg release at some point, or something else that would offer insight into what the band sounded like way back then?
Alex: You know, it’s funny that you mention that. I was up at my studio…I’m upgrading and changing my control room around a little bit. Rich and I have sort of “moved in together” in there. And I was cleaning up the back room…I’ve gotten rid of a bunch of stuff over the years…and I just found a case that was way up on the top shelf, and at the bottom of this box were a bunch of reel-to-reel, unlisted, unmarked, recordings…and I can only imagine that they’re pre-‘74. So, they would probably be from between ‘70 and ’73…recordings from that period. So, they would probably have songs like “Run Willie Run” and “Slaughterhouse” and “Garden Road”, and all of those early songs that we wrote and played during our bar days.
SKIP: Oh wow. I’ve got to tell you that I think the fans would eat that up, even if it was just something put our via the web site, in digital form, as an “official bootleg series” or something.
Alex: Yeah, I’ll see what sort of shape they’re in. I know a couple of the reels were…you know those small reels, and I’ve got to think that even spooling them might be a problem, nevermind me playing them. Anyway, I just discovered them so who knows – there may be something in the near future.
SKIP: Along these lines, I been corresponding recently with a guy named Ian Grandy…
Alex: Oh yeah
SKIP: …who was actually Rush’s very first roadie, and he says he recalls setting up three microphones to record Neil’s audition for the band, back in July, 1974. Any chance that recording still exists? That’s the kind of thing that Rush fans would love to hear, just for historic purposes…
Alex: Oh…I don’t know…
SKIP: Probably lost in the mists of time…?
Alex: Oh, I’m sure it would have been, or it may have even been recorded over. We couldn’t afford too much back then, so if we had a reel, it probably got used for a lot of recording…
SKIP: Do you guys have at least some kind of recorded documentation from every tour, even just soundboards?
Alex: Certainly there were recordings made during soundchecks…I don’t know about gigs so much, in the earlier days.
SKIP: I know that, for collectors, the Caress of Steel tour is just a huge black hole – nobody has anything from that. And there have been people dying to know - what did the band sound like then? What did they play? And that’s the kind of thing…it’d be fabulous if you guys released a recording from every past tour, maybe via rush.com?
Alex: Yeah, I just don’t know if any of that kind of stuff exists…
Wow. Let's keep our fingers crossed. Here Alex addresses the rumor that the next tour may be their last.
SKIP: There is a rumor currently going around, and I’m guessing I know how you’re going to answer this, but there’s a rumor going around that the next Rush tour will be the last. Is it too early for you to confirm or dispel this?
Alex: Well, first of all what do you think I would say?
SKIP: What I think you’ll say is “well, we’re just off of a long tour, so right now we’re just concentrating on resting, and we don’t make plans that far ahead…”
Alex: …there you go. Rumors are rumors. I guess that’s an easy rumor to get started…
SKIP: It’s probably been a yearly rumor since around 1985…
Alex: You know, we did 120 shows. We are beat. We’ve worked really hard since the time off that we had when Neil was getting through that hard time in his life. We’ve worked solidly from 2001 until now. We’ve done…what, four tours, and a bunch of dvds, four records, I mean we’ve really worked hard and we want to take a break. We’re tired. So, we’re going to take a year off, at least. We’re not going to do anything until next fall, at the earliest. Now, Ged and I might, in the spring or sometime, get together – we’re only five minutes away from each other, and we get bored, and we like to sit down…we love writing together – we might just casually do some writing, and who knows – that might get the juices flowing and we’ll get going. But I have a feeling that we’re not going to do anything until next fall. Now, we’re planning stuff. We have a list of things that we’re very very excited about doing. That includes touring, that includes a record, and that includes a lot of different things. So, we just want a little break, and we’re completely dedicated to the idea of continuing working. Who knows when the last tour will be – maybe the last tour was the last tour!? You just never know where life takes you – that’s one thing we’ve learned. But we’re certainly making lots of plans for the future, and I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon that we’re going to be retiring. ...
This all jibes with what Alex stated in his recent Toledo Blade interview and Geddy's remarks in his Billboard interview.
On doing songs from the Power Windows/Hold Your Fire albums:
SKIP: As I watch this DVD, certain tracks have really leapt out, and one of them is “Mission”. I always loved this song, and this version is quite different sonically - the guitars are really beefed up, and it has a nice, thick sound. It made me wonder if we can expect you guys to revisit more of the Power Windows/Hold Your Fire era songs in the future? It’d be interesting to hear how some of the deeper cuts from those “keyboard era” albums would benefit from the band’s current sonic approach.
Alex: Yeah, I’ve thought the same thing, and I would hope that we would give that some thought the next time we go out. I mean, there are some great songs from those albums, and it would be great to address them, as you say, with this sonic approach and the much beefier guitar sound.
SKIP: Yeah, there are songs like “Marathon”, or even deeper cuts like “Middletown Dreams”…
Alex: Yeah - ”Grand Designs”…
SKIP: Yeah, exactly! I always loved those songs, but the recordings are obviously kind of rooted in the 80’s in terms of the production.
Alex: Yeah, totally.
Cool! This cool bit on songs that almost made recent setlists and the Rush Petition (that Skip himself created):
SKIP: Moving on to setlists for a minute…can you shed any light on some specific songs that ALMOST made the set list in recent tours, but ended up NOT getting played? Are there any other rarities that the band talked about resurrecting, and maybe even rehearsed, but which ended up not making the set?
Alex: Well, for this last tour we talked about “A Farewell To Kings”. We’ve discussed “Camera Eye” numerous times, because it seems to be a fan favorite and we’re not unaware of that. Ged and I sat down before the Vapor Trails tour, and we had a listen to “Camera Eye”, but we just weren’t ready to attack it. But I think the way the songs that we did on this tour, like “Circumstances” and “Entre Nous”…and “Ghost Of A Chance” is probably the best example…the kind of new life that we breath into those songs by messing a little with the arrangement, but just playing them now, so many years later, with a slightly different feel, I don’t know…it’s almost like – it’d be great to do a whole bunch of songs like that that we’d never considered before.
SKIP: Hear hear! That’d be fantastic. And it’s funny you mention the “fan requests”, because I should also fess up that I’m actually the guy who runs the rushpetition.com fan request web site.
Alex: Oh, ok…you’re the one!
SKIP: Yeah, I’m the one. I hope you guys have found it useful. It’s probably misnamed as a “petition”. It was never intended to be an obnoxious thing…
Alex: Oh, not at all. In fact, it’s very helpful. We’re just changing our whole opinion on those sorts of songs. Stuff that we wouldn’t have considered in the past…now, all of a sudden, with the success that we feel we’ve had by rearranging some of these songs and playing them live, now it would be exciting to address some of these older songs that aren’t as close to our hearts I guess you could say, and bring them a lot closer.
And here Alex discusses John Rutsey:
SKIP: Shifting gears again…last May, Rush fans were saddened to hear of the recent passing of John Rutsey (the band’s original drummer; he died of complications from diabetes on May 11, 2008). Were you still in touch with John? It’s always been a bit of a mystery what he was up to after leaving the band. Did he ever come to a Rush show after leaving the band? Did he and Neil ever meet or hang out?
Alex: No, I’m not so sure Neil and John ever met. I can’t remember if he ever came out to a gig. He might have, but he never came backstage or anything. After he left the band, we saw each other a little bit, you know once in a while when we were back home, at a party, or at somebody’s place where he happened to be. It wasn’t like there was a falling out or anything. He didn’t want to do what we were doing, so he quit. In fact, that last year, in 1973, we had a substitute drummer for a while because John was really sick. We had some gigs we had to play, and so we had this substitute drummer…Jerry Fielding was his name. And then John came back in, but when the prospect of touring and all of these things that were suddenly happening, all of these good opportunities, he just wasn’t into it, which was really odd at the time, because we were so excited about it – it was a dream come true, but he didn’t really want to be a part of it. So, once he’d decided to leave the band, we had a couple of months worth of club gigs that we did, and we had a riot. We had a great time together. John and I were childhood friends, but after we left, we left a lot of stuff when we hit the road. We were gone a lot. It changed the whole nature of the relationship with a lot of our friends at that time who were moving on and getting married or whatever. It kind of changed all of that. I saw John over the next several years once in a while, through about 1976, and then I didn’t see him or hear from him for about ten years, and then we sort of reconnected for a little while…for a couple of months I was off and we worked out together and went to dinner a couple of times, and then I lost touch with him again for another three or four years. And then I didn’t really hear from him since about 1991 - I got one phone call in all of that time. And with Ged, it was even less communication. I don’t think he and Ged really had any connection for probably the last thirty years. I mean, that’s the way it goes. There were no hard feelings or anything – everybody just moved on with their lives. We were very saddened to hear that he passed away. It was inevitable with him – he had juvenile diabetes, and it took its toll, as it does, unfortunately, for many people. And it was sad, as it always is, to hear of a friend of yours passing away, but to be honest we weren’t really that close.