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A Timeless Wavelength: An Interview With Alex Lifeson of Rush

The legendary guitarist reflects on his band’s journey, the myth of celebrity, and staying happy

From their high school band origins to what’s likely the group’s final farewell now forty years later, Rush have adhered to the simplicity of where they first began, as blissfully hopeful friends jamming out in a basement. It’s easy to dismiss the same song and dance cliché of rock legends, but in the case of Rush the truth really is that simple. With this year’s R40 tour, singer/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart set out to pay tribute to one of rock’s fiercest (and historically derided) fanbases, while allowing all three to look back and acknowledge that journey with a dual sense of pride and humility.

It’s those same qualities from which the largest part of their success is derived and, in nearly exclusive rarity, the same qualities which have taken them from a Toronto garage to arenas worldwide, amassing whole generations of fans and inspiring countless artists their music. As what looks to be the group’s final tour comes to an end, we spoke with Lifeson about his own reflections of the band’s oftentimes wrongly overlooked successes, and the unique bond he shares not only with his bandmates, but with the generations of dedicated Rush fans who’ve been there for the band now for over forty years.

The assumption is that the R40 tour is the band’s farewell tour. Assuming that’s true, have you found yourself being more reflective than usual of Rush’s incredible journey?
Yeah, I think we all have. In the past when we’ve celebrated our anniversary — like, for example, our 30 tour ten years ago, it was a bit of a retrospective as well. We kind of tried to reach back and balance the live set with material from our entire career. But this time we focused a lot more on looking back from the present right back to the very beginning. You saw the show in Atlanta, so you know what we’re doing with it. It’s kind of fun to present it that way, and for us as a band playing, stripping it down to that last half hour or so where the keyboards are gone, and it’s just the three of us jamming away – it’s really a lot of fun and every night is a high point for us.

That camaraderie and cohesion has become one of the defining characteristics of Rush, especially in terms of longevity and the fact that you’ve stayed together and managed to steer clear of the egomania that so many other just as well known groups are known for. Is that something you guys are aware of or sort of keep in the back of your mind?
I think we’ve always been aware of it. We don’t allow each other to get to haughty, you know? We’ve always, from the very beginning, wanted to be the best musicians we could be, and to be the best band that we could be. We’ve always pushed ourselves, and it’s been a natural evolution. It’s not so much about the lifestyle as it is about wanting to be good and beyond that, wanting to be human beings that care about a lot of things in life. It’s a whole picture. It’s not just being in a rock band, and I think we all had a good foundation growing up that just seemed natural. With that said, I think it’s a little bit of a Canadian thing, too. [Laughs]

You talking about growing up and that family background of course makes me think about the familial dynamic that exists within Rush’s fanbase. Not to say it’s entirely exclusive to you guys, but it’s certainly more visible where you have these whole generations passing along your music to their kids.
Yeah. I don’t go to many other shows, so I don’t know if that happens very often with other bands, but certainly I see it. I’m looking out at multi-generations. Young kids with their dads. That’s a big thing. Dads with their daughters or sons share the experience. You’re an example of that. [Laughs] When I met you in Atlanta, you were there to share that experience, and I see that so often. Other times I even see three generations – grandparents with their kids and their kids’ kids. It’s remarkable to me that we’re doing something that moves them to share that sort of experience that way. It’s really, really remarkable, and it’s not lost on us. We really feel very honored and blessed by the people who look at us that way.

There’s seemed to have always been that understanding with you guys where you just kind of feel at ease with being outsiders. Just thinking about things like South Park or Trailer Park Boys or the whole idea of “geek culture,” Rush has seemingly always been that band not to take themselves too seriously.
I think we always took our music seriously and certainly in the earlier days. Well, I think overall we’ve taken our music very seriously, but we all have a very common sense of humour, and we really enjoy laughing together, and I think that’s a lot of the reason why we have managed to stay together after forty-one years. We just enjoy our time together. We really enjoy being around each other, and we make each other laugh all the time. There are moments when you’re serious, and there are moments when you’re down, and I gotta say it’s an amazing relationship that we have because my two coworkers are there for me when I’m not feeling that up. They pick my spirits up, and we do that with each other.

What Neil went through, we were there for him as brothers. There’s that whole angle of it that’s so important and so much more human than just being “rock stars”. That’s never seemed very important. In fact, we smile and sometimes we don’t even know how to take it. Even now it seems so odd to us, but you do what you do and try to be honest with yourself. It sounds kinda corny, doesn’t it? It’s not like a big deal. You just be a normal person. Everybody wants to be so famous now with Instagramming, tweeting, and just blah, blah, blah all the time from everybody. I guess when you’re in a position where you have that celebrity, and you don’t use it, and you step back from that, it must be odd to some people.

Given the fact that you guys have witnessed and taken part in the multitude of changes in the music industry over the last forty years, do you see a band willing to take the same risks in 2015 facing more obstacles now than Rush did with those first few albums in the early ’70s? Is it more difficult now to take those kinds of risks that pretty much set the standard for what you guys would continue to do for the next forty years?
I would say that it is more difficult in the music industry now to establish yourself and definitely to establish yourself as a very independent kind of artist. Things tend to happen very quickly and attention spans are so short. Music has become free to an extent, and it’s all around us all the time, so it’s harder to really cultivate an audience for a band like us. I would say that it would be much more difficult now to do it. At least when we were coming up, we had the commitment from a record company. Our first deal, for example, was for five records, so there was development there. They looked at it as: “Let’s invest in these first two records, and if nothing happens, no big deal. Maybe the third record will be the turning point, and then four and five we’re on the gravy train.” I think that was the record company’s perspective.

Record companies now, if that thing even exists anymore, are a lot more speculative about how they support bands and what they look for. This whole 360-deal thing – they own the band, they own the merchandising, they own everything. They don’t wanna put any money into it. The band has to go out and make their own record. It’s like, “Bring the record to us; we’ll release it and if something happens, great. We’re on it. If something doesn’t happen, you’re on your own.” So there’s no commitment anymore to develop young talent, and it shows in the quality of music, I think. There’s lots of great music around, but there’s lots of very mediocre music that’s derivative and unoriginal, and that really says something.

And that’s just it. I can’t imagine a record label now staying loyal to a band whose fourth album began with a twenty-minute overture. That dynamic of risk taking has been somewhat diminished by this sense of immediacy.
To use that same example, if we were to release those same three records now: Fly By Night – the record company would’ve gone, “Okay, let’s hang on.” With Caress of Steel, they would’ve dropped us right away, because it was a commercially unsuccessful record, but we needed to make that record to make 2112. So there would be no 2112 for Rush in 2015. I’d go back to plumbing [laughs] or some other job. That just doesn’t exist now, whereas back then, as nervous as they were, they still were there to support us. They had a deal with us, and they looked through that difficult period, and then 2112 was the turning point for us, and we never looked back after that. And we had other points where we stepped it up, but in this day and age that just doesn’t happen.

Looking at your own achievements over the years, what’s been the sort of creative apex for you where you have that personal proudest moment as a musician?
There’ve been so many high points and so many of those transitional points in our career. It’s really difficult to think of one specific time, because everything has been so gradual. Everything has been so much fun and normal in terms of what we were doing and how we were getting on. One day you’d wake up, and you’d be a little more well-known or popular or more people bought your record. It was very gradual in that sense. It wasn’t suddenly that we turned around and went from nothing to everything.

But I think in terms of that personal growth as a musician, it wasn’t so much with Rush but for me personally it was when I did my solo record. Everything was on my back. I produced it, I wrote it, I got musicians together, I played bass, I played guitar, I played keyboards, I worked on the cover art. I did the whole thing. That was probably my greatest accomplishment in personal terms of being a musician and taking on the responsibility of making a record, which we all share within Rush with the producer and the three of us and our office, whereas with the solo record I did it all on my own, and it didn’t matter to me if I sold one copy or a billion. I did it. I put the time and effort in and that was a very proud moment for me when I finished that record. But the whole Rush experience has been so much more gradual. There’ve been so many ups and downs. Well, so many ups. [Laughs]

What’s been the primary takeaway for you from the whole Rush story? What’s taken you from being that kid in the garage back in Willowdale to what may very well be the closing chapter for Rush?
I think perseverance is the key thing. I’ve come to learn that if you wanna be good at anything, you have to put in your 10,000 hours and stick with it and never give up. As difficult as it seems some times, don’t give up if it’s truly something you want to do. I spent the afternoon with one of my friends today, and he was talking about his kids, and he was talking about how they’re growing up and the conversations that he’d had with them, and how he instilled in them that whole sense of it doesn’t matter how much you make or how successful you are at something. The true measure of success is being happy, and if you’re happy being a gardener, then do it. If you’re happy being a bank executive, do it. If you’re happy being a musician, do it. But make sure you do it. I’m glad to hear people are still thinking that way.

Tags: Rush