Alex Lifeson says Rush’s no-compromise approach is key to its staying power

Rollin' Them Bones - Front2


By Steve Newton

When I interviewed Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate last month, the singer had some intriguing things to say about an alleged “backlash” against progressive rock, which he felt had been initiated by the music industry in the ’70s. Tate uncovered a plot to undermine the growing popularity of musically accomplished bands like Yes and Genesis, its ultimate aim being to make it easier for talentless recording “artists” to go forth and multiply, reaping bigger profits for record companies.

When you look around today, the scarcity of progressive rock bands gives credence to Tate’s theory, but not all of the so-called “dinosaurs” of the ’70s are extinct. There is the odd exception, and Canada’s irrepressible Rush is probably the oddest.

As guitarist Alex Lifeson explained from Fresno, California, last week, his band’s iron will to make music its own way has never been weakened by outside influences.

“We made the records we wanted to make, and no one was gonna tell us how to do otherwise,” says the 38-year-old guitarist, whose band plays the Pacific Coliseum on Sunday (February 2). “We knew what we had to do, and we did it.”

Rush has been doing it since 1974, releasing album after album. And—against all odds—every single one has sold well. So far, the band has released 14 studio albums—as well as three live discs and a compilation—and, commercially speaking, there hasn’t been a stinker in the bunch.

But try to decipher Rush’s formula for success and you’ll come up empty, because the group has never had one. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“There’s always been a fear of repeating yourself,” says Lifeson, “so we try very hard to do something different every time. I mean, there are only 12 notes in that scale.”

There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, too, but that hasn’t deterred drummer/lyricist Neil Peart from supplying rabid Rush fans with adventurous messages, whether they be inspired by history (“Bastille Day”), science fiction (“The Temples of Syrinx”), politics (“The Big Money”), or the atom bomb (“The Manhattan Project”).

When Peart’s words collided with the music of Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, anything was possible. And to keep the resulting noise fresh, Lee and Lifeson often relied on the impromptu jams that would occur before concerts while they checked their sound.

“We had tapes and tapes and tapes of all those afternoon jams,” says Lifeson, “and you could always pick out some half-decent stuff and put it all down to one tape and refer to it when you needed something to act as a spark, or when you needed a piece.”

There was less reliance on previous jams with the band’s latest album, Roll the Bones, though.

“With this record, we really sat down and just started playing,” explains Lifeson. “We were much more into the flow of what we were doing at the time. This record picked up where Presto started, in that we wanted to go back to that real core three-piece that we kinda lost by experimenting with keyboards a lot.

“We’ve gone back to re-evaluating some of the things that Rush was all about, and found that we really enjoyed just rocking out.”

Though, musically, Rush may have taken “a couple of steps sideways”, as Lifeson puts it, one path the band has not strayed from is its original trio format. And don’t expect the group to evolve into a quartet any time soon.

“We talked about that in the ’70s,” says Lifeson of expanding the line-up, “but decided that what we really wanted was to put the onus on ourselves to learn to play other instruments and work a little bit harder, if we could. So that’s what we ended up doing, and we’ve never really looked back from that.”

While Lifeson has taken time out from his career with Rush to produce and/or play with the occasional outside act, the venerable hero of Canuck rock has yet to make his own solo album. Considering his status among guitar fanatics and the commercial track record of his band, one might wonder what’s holding him back.

“I’ve never really had the desire for it,” he says, “and I think that goes for all of us. Our musical aspirations seem to be satisfied with Rush. We do, occasionally, work with other musicians, but to do a solo project—that’s like looking at the same kind of time requirement that Rush takes to make a record. We already tour a lot and our recording takes a lot of time. I don’t think anybody wants to give that up over a whim, because right now, that’s all it is.

“But what would be interesting is to maybe get involved in some film work. That would be cool, because that’s the way we write this stuff—we try to get a visual picture of what’s being said lyrically and then write it in such a way that it captures some of that.”

As usual, film and animation will play a large part in Rush’s upcoming Vancouver gig, a show that, at press time, was 2,000 seats away from a sell-out—testimony to the band’s staying power after 18 years.

But what’s been the undying attraction after all this time?

“We’ve always had that no-compromise attitude,” says Lifeson, “and our audience picks up on it. And Rush is a fairly unique band in the way we write out music, the way we work, the way we sound. I think our audience also likes the fact that they’ve grown up with the band, and they’re quite…I dunno…maybe they’re kinda proud of that.”

To hear the full audio of my 1992 interview with Alex Lifeson–and my 2002 interview with Geddy Lee as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 400 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
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Todd Kerns, 2016
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John Hiatt, 2010
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Buddy Guy, 1993
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Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
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Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
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Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
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Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
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Walter Trout, 2003
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Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
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Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
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Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
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Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
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Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
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Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
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