Rush's new concept album, Clockwork Angels, hit shelves earlier this month, and guitarist Alex Lifeson couldn't be happier – not just with how it turned out, but with the massive fanbase that the band has held onto over the past few decades. "It's amazing to be at this stage in your life and have such a broad audience really liking what you're doing," Lifeson says. "I feel really so fortunate. We can do whatever we want, and that seems to be what's expected of us, which is a great thing."
Rolling Stone spoke with Lifeson about the new record, the upcoming tour and his feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What first inspired you guys to make a concept record?
Well, I suppose it really started with our producer Nick Raskulinecz, when we were working on Snakes and Arrows. He kept pushing us to make another concept record or a longer piece, something more elaborate, and we kind of laughed it off at the time, but I guess something sunk in. We sort of just gravitate to that. It was much easier once Neil [Peart] had a lyrical conception in mind. And certainly to write in those terms is actually pretty easy. It gives you a structure, and [Geddy Lee] and I fell into it fairly easily. One of the things I like about the record is that the songs stand up individually as well, not only as a connected concept piece.
How did Neil first explain the idea of the album's story to you?
It came in dribs and drabs. As an overview, he explained it as a journey. The thing about working on it for a long period of time, he changed the storyline, and he reworked a lot lyrics and themes within the concept. His sources are varied, so he's the one to talk to about that.
How does the process work from there?
We read through Neil's lyrics, try to get a sense of where it's going, and then Ged and I will usually start jamming and then see what lyrics will work with whatever piece that we're working on. There's a lot of back and forth between Neil and Ged. Ged has to feel comfortable with the lyrics, that they're clear and understandable and that he's comfortable singing them. That's the thing with lyrics: sometimes the story gets in the way of the vocalization and that can be difficult, so there's a lot of paring that goes on over time. They have a great working relationship. Ged might pull out one phrase from a set of lyrics that Neil has spent a great deal of time on and say, "This really speaks to me. Can we just rebuild it around this one phrase?" And it's amazing how Neil has such an unbounded patience to do that sort of thing.
How does Neil send you the lyrics? E-mail?
He usually sends them either as a scan or an e-mail. Sometimes he faxes stuff. Not as much anymore. He puts in little artistic flourishes and uses different fonts for different songs. It's just kind of an elaborate thing, all things considered, when you know you're gonna sit down with a pen and start scratching things out and rewriting.
You guys have done a ton of concerts over the past 10 years, and they've all been very well received. That has to infuse you with a lot of energy.
A new energy and confidence, more than anything. We just feel really good about where we're at. The show that we're working on now, the production stage has been kind of crazy trying to get it ready in time for September, and then the rehearsals starting in July. It's all a little much, but I know in a couple of weeks when we start to get into that schedule, we'll start to groove and feel very good and there's something about that confidence that comes – maybe with maturity, maybe because for the last 10 years we've been playing as much as we've been playing. We really feel like we put it together really well these days.
It's got to be tough to make a setlist when you have so much history to draw from.
Yeah, it is. It's very difficult. We want to play the new material. We sort of go back and forth. "Should we play the whole thing? Or should we play most of it, or some of it, and mix it up?" It's always very difficult, and having come off a tour where we featured an album in its entirety, it makes the idea of featuring the whole of Clockwork Angels that much more appealing.
I think for the first leg of the tour, at the very least, we'll do most of the record – not all of it, but we'll do most of it. The material that's coming up amongst the three of us in the e-mails that we're sharing is the older material. There's a lot of stuff in there that we haven't played before, and we haven't played in a long time so it's got a freshness to it this time around. We'll always have to play that handful of songs that we've had the most commercial success with, but mixing it up with some other material that we haven't played in a long time is really great. It's shaping up to be a pretty good set.
It's been really great to see you guys popping up all over TV and movies these past few years. Why do you think that's happened?
I don't know. I think we still scratch our heads over this whole thing lately. I guess we've been around for so long, we have fans all over the place and they're getting older and more influential. I guess you get movie directors and doctors and writers, and suddenly your name comes up in a film or documentary. So much has happened since that documentary came out, and the perception of the band on a much broader scale to a much wider audience really changed a lot. It's brought in a whole new audience – a younger audience, a more diversified audience. More women come to our shows, which was always a little bit unusual.
Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn did a very great job with the documentary, and they told a story that maybe we didn't realize existed. Because when you're living, it's just sort of your normal day-to-day stuff and it's not really that big of a deal. But they managed to tell a story about friendship and brotherhood and perseverance and having dreams, and they mixed in a good dose of humor and made it a very fun film to watch.
Is there any chance you're just going to do the record straight through on this tour?
I don't think so. Not on the first leg of the tour. But perhaps if people become more familiar with it, or if it becomes a very strong demand, then we'd consider it for the second leg of the tour. It's always good to mix it up on the tour, so we'll see. But for now, I think we're doing a major portion of it. There are only a few songs that we're leaving out at this point.
Might you play another album straight through on a future tour?
Yeah, we talked about that for this tour as well, but once Clockwork Angels came together, rather than taking four, five, or six songs from it and leaving room for exploring another full album … now, we're including the 55 minutes of it. It takes up a big chunk of the set.
What older albums did you talk about doing?
2112 kind of makes sense, I suppose. Permanent Waves, we've played every song on that record on every tour, so I don't even know if it's worth it to do that with that one. 2112 would be the logical one, I suppose. It came so long ago, though, and we're really about wanting to be pretty fresh. It was great with Moving Pictures, primarily because we got to play "Camera Eye" and that became a favorite of all of ours. Really, it was one of the high points for me because it's a challenging song to play, and it came off great live, I think.
I've heard word that Vapor Trails might get remixed at some point. Is that true?
Oh, yeah, that's always something that we're doing. We've already remixed a few songs. The idea was to do it as a tagalong with this record, maybe. That was one of the options that we talked about. But the schedule just keeps getting in the way of something like that. Because it's not really a priority. We'd like to do it, I think, for all the right reasons. We're not happy with the mastering. We felt that the production could've been a bit better, and we'd like to have another crack at it. But the longer we get away from it, the less appealing the idea is. Maybe it's best to leave it as it is.
There's something that's very compelling about that record. It's the least-produced record that we've ever done. But in a way that's the right thing, for the moment. It was a very, very difficult time, and that record should sound and feel very different from anything else that we've done.
That was a rough period. I could never have envisioned the last decade, where you've pretty much been working nonstop.
Yeah, when I go back to that period I remember thinking, "Yeah, this is it." I was starting to think, "What other projects can I do? Maybe I should get rid of some of my gear." It just really did feel like the end. It was so fragile coming back together, and spending 14 months making that record was really tough with all that dark material and remembrance of difficult times. And then to go back on the road and have it be so positive. I'm just living day-to-day ever since, not expecting too much from the future. And things become more active and stable.
I imagine you're tired of this subject, but I know a lot of people are furious that you guys aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you feel about it?
Honestly, we really, really don't care about it. It's someone's thing, and they can do whatever they want with it. They can have whomever they like. It's their thing.
It's a little bit different here in Canada. We've received awards that mean an awful lot more to us than being in the Hall of Fame. We got the Governor General's Performing Arts Award a couple weeks ago. That's really the highest accolade you can get in this country for the performing arts, and it's recognized nationally, and I felt so proud as a Canadian to be in this esteemed group of artists that have been there for the last 20 years.
But you guys would show up if you did make it, right?
I think we'd consider it at the time and just see where we're at. I mean, you don't want to be rude, and we're Canadians, and we find it very difficult to be rude as much as we'd really like to. [Laughs] So we'd probably have to look at that one, if it ever came. I know there must be pressure from their end. We keep going on and getting more popular…
They've got to take in you guys, Yes, King Crimson, Joy Division, Peter Gabriel…
Yeah, look, there are a lot of other bands that should be in there before we should be in there. You just named a few of them ... If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn't want us in there, that's fine. I don't care. It really, really doesn't matter at the end of the day. It's probably better left the way it is. There's more controversy for them and for us.