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Alex Lifeson on the Making of Rush's 'Vapor Trails'
May 7th, 2002
by Paul Cantin
Rush's ordeal creating their new record "Vapor Trails" extended right through the music-making process to the album's final mastering.
Guitarist Alex Lifeson told JAM! Music that even after 14 months of touch-and-go writing and recording the 13 songs that make up "Vapor Trails" (the group's first album since 1996's "Test For Echo"), there were serious technical problems late in the process.
The protracted writing process got off to a rough start, but after an early break, guitarist Lifeson, bassist Geddy Lee, and drummer Neil Peart hit their stride. The new album's more streamlined, harder-edged sound came together quickly.
"Once we got over the three-month hump, this record took on a life of its own, and we were along for the ride," Lifeson explains in a basement meeting room at his manager's downtown Toronto office.
But in rock 'n' roll, it ain't over till it's over. And even after the trio went their separate ways at the conclusion of the album, there were more challenges.
"Geddy went away to do the mastering. I went away on a golfing trip as soon as we finished (last February)," Lifeson says.
"It had been 14 months (making the record), and in the past, we spent four to six months making a record ... I just had to go. I felt badly, because everything was dumped on Geddy, to do the mastering and make all those decisions."
Even as he was hitting the links, Lifeson was on the phone four or five times a day with Lee, who was forced to deal with unexpected glitches that didn't emerge until late in the recording process.
"We found problems that we didn't hear in mixing that were apparent in mastering. To get the kind of levels (we wanted), we had digital distortion. We remixed a couple of songs half-way through the mastering, through the remix, back to mastering," says Lifeson.
"The poor guy (Lee) was doing this on his own. It really shook him up."
Still, Lifeson took a final, mixed-and-mastered version of "Vapor Trails" with him to Hawaii for a holiday with his wife. And even then, he couldn't bring himself to listen to the finished product until late in the two-week vacation, when he settled onto the beach, slid the finished disc into his Discman, and pressed play.
"I was really thrilled by the fact that I heard the songs and I really liked the songs a lot. I was really proud of the work we did. It all unfolded for me," he says with obvious satisfaction.
"When I got back, I called him and said, 'Ged! The album is great! We did a great job! We got through it, we stuck to everything we believed in and we did it!'
"He said: 'I don't know what to think. I think it's awful.' I said, please do me a favour. Just don't put it on for a couple of weeks. Be relaxed and open'."
Lifeson said he's still not sure Lee is at a point where he has separated himself from the trauma of finishing the album, to where he can listen to it as a whole. But given how intense an experience creating "Vapor Trails" was, that's not surprising.
"Honestly, we had no life for 14 months. That was our life," the guitarist says.
"It is one thing to go into the studio and have easy hours and take weekends off and a week off every four weeks. But you never stop thinking about it. When you get down to the crunch of mixing, it becomes an unruly beast."
Fans will be able to assess the "unruly beast" for themselves on Tuesday (May 14), when "Vapor Trails" arrives in stores. After Lee and Lifeson complete press duties, they'll hook back up with drummer-lyricist Peart to complete preparations for their first live dates since 1997.
The tour will likely take Rush through Christmas, and then Lifeson anticipates a lengthy vacation. But he won't rule out the possibility of more new music coming from Rush.
"I think one of the lessons we learned in the last five years is it is not prudent to make plans. Things can change in a flash," he says.
"We should all take a break. We had a great time making this record. Geddy and I love working together on music. I wouldn't be surprised if we started working together on another record some time next year."
During a wide-ranging conversation, Lifeson spoke to JAM! Music about the making of "Vapor Trails," the impact of Sept. 11 on their new record, the absence of synthesizers on the album, the group's burgeoning status as a hip influence on contemporary bands, plans for the upcoming tour, and the second-annual Rush fan convention in Toronto. Here's how it went.
Q: How different was the methodology in making "Vapor Trails" from earlier Rush albums?
A: We are very much into routines and scheduling. In the past, we always allotted six weeks for writing. Write two songs a week. Finish all the writing. Two weeks for pre-production and re-arranging and any of that stuff. And then go into the studio and start recording.
With this record, we decided no deadlines. It would take as long as it would take. We would not push ourselves in that sense. And we made a point of getting good sounds from the beginning, so everything we recorded was useable.
Consequently, a lot of the record is from those early jam sessions. Geddy and I would jam for a couple of days and then sift through and cull the best bits. And then we would start song construction after that.
We spent the first two weeks just communicating. Talking. Getting to be comfortable with each other again. We didn't play much in that time. Exploring some sounds. But we just talked a lot. Then we started writing after that two weeks.
A couple of months after that, we took a break. And when we came back to it, everything was clear to us. In that initial period, we wrote a lot of crap. We wrote a lot of junk on disc. It was important for us to play and get stuff out of our system. A lot of stuff we were writing was boring, predictable, unoriginal.
There were a few gems in there, but most of it was garbage. When we got back to it, we could clearly see where we needed to go with it.
Q: So you worked independently from Neil Peart?
A: He is there, in his own space, working on lyrics. He had his kit set up in the live room at Reaction (Studios), so he could go in and rehearse whenever he wanted to, without interfering with us.
I know he walked by that control room many, many times and wanted to come in and get something going. But Ged and I like to get deep involved into it before we give him anything. We are always getting lyrics from him, but we wait until we have a few songs, so that he can get a sense of direction, where it is going.
Working out his drum arrangements comes later. But it is important that he bases what he is doing on more than one song. It was frustrating for him, because it took us a while. It took us a few months before we felt we had material we felt was indicative of this record.
Q: So the music went off in a different direction after you started. How would you characterize the direction you went with?
A: For me, the writing took on a real interesting dissonance that we never had. It is very passionate. Quite intense for a Rush record. It is probably the heaviest record we have made in some time.
There are no keyboards, so it is a very organic record. I was so hoping that we wouldn't include any keyboards on this record. I always have a fight with them; keyboards occupy the same frequency range as guitars, primarily. They are flat. There is nothing deep or dimensional. They are samples. We have used them in the past, and I had issues then. But that is the direction we took.
This was an opportunity for me to write guitar parts that keyboards would have taken in the past -- shading and colour and background stuff, atmospheric things. But it is more organic. It has feel to it. It comes from the movement of this hand, rather than pushing a key.
Geddy was really open to it. He understood my frustration in that area. I think I proved to him we could go to a whole other area with the guitar, and then he took his voice to a whole other area, using it as an instrument, creating all those things we created in the past.
The record is more organic. It really represents the three of us.
Q: Rhythmically, it is a much more direct style than some of your older material. There isn't all the weird, changing time signatures.
A: Geddy and I have been listening to a lot of our old stuff. Going through all our records, for the setlist for our next tour. It is a really interesting process. We have not listened to "Fly By Night" or "Caress Of Steel" or "Hemispheres" in decades. We only ever played one or two songs, and maybe nothing from some records.
I could see how we wrote back then. We always challenged ourselves. All these funny time signatures. Movements. Things were very abrupt and slotted in. I can hear that now.
With ("Vapor Trails"), we tried to be more subtle and fluid with time changes. In "Freeze," there are movements and changes, but they happen in subtle ways. The guitar will overlap with the drums, or the bass will follow a pattern. They will shift that way, rather than everyone shifting at once.
I think we are a little more mature. We look for a different thing now than we did back then. It was the power and intensity. The complication is a little subtler. For me, I love hearing music that sounds very complex and complicated. Until you play it, and you go: Oh my god! This is so easy. That is an art to take a simple chordal pattern and twist it enough to make it sound hard to play.
Q: Do you ever have conversations with Neil about the lyrics and discuss what theme might unify the album? With "Test For Echo," it seemed to be about the problems of communication. Did you ever conclude what underlying theme there was to "Vapor Trails"?
A: I don't know if we ever discuss those things. Neil brings us lyrics. In his mind, he has a theme or a thought that becomes central to what he is thinking. In the old days, it was a lot more apparent with the concept things.
This record, it hasn't been so connected to one theme. There is a sense of recovery and hope. It is a very positive, optimistic record, I think. Which I think is important, given what Neil went through in the last five years and what we all went through. (Peart lost his daughter to a car accident and his wife to cancer).
(The album) is a little more all over the place. It reflects a lot of what happened, and certainly his feelings.
Q: The image of vapor trails, tracing your path suggests reflecting on what one has been through.
A: And it disappears. The important thing is where you are going.
Q: Neil hasn't always been known for the personal nature of his lyrics, so were you surprised how personal this set seemed to be?
A: Well, he had to. In the past, his lyrics were more from an observer's point of view. He never dictated an opinion. But he left things open in his writing, to challenge people to think. That has always been a trademark with us, and that is how we earned our geeky kind of reputation.
But this record was a lot more personal. I don't think I was surprised by it, when he submitted lyrics that were personal. He needed to purge himself of thoughts and feelings. He is a writer. Not just lyrics, he is working on his second published book, and he has been writing travel journals for 15 years now.
He needed to vent. He needed to get a lot of things off his chest. We knew it was important for him. A lot of these things weren't lyrics. They came in the form of lyrics, but he has a way of dealing with being in that position, dealing with those thoughts.
Geddy and Neil both worked closely on the lyrics. If Geddy is going to sing, he needs to feel comfortable with them. If it is too personal, it is a little difficult for him, as you can imagine. They worked closely to make sure they were lyrics that anyone could attach themselves to the emotion.
Q: Neil has been pretty consistent about his privacy. So did you discuss how you were going to deal with this topic when it came up, since he isn't handling press interviews?
A: As we finished the record, we talked about touring. That is a very difficult thing for him. He is not keen on touring, and hasn't been for 10 years. But he understands the importance of it. Put a record out -- you have to tour it. We have got great fans. There is an obligation to them to present your latest work. We share this experience with our fans. Our fans are the greatest fans that any band could imagine.
He indicated it was a big concern to him, how he was going to deal with being on the road. It is a difficult thing for him to think about what happened. He has started on a different course. He has remarried. He is deeply scarred by what he went through, but he is building his strength. He has come a long way in the last year. From when we started the record to now? A long, long way.
As friends, we are thrilled. At the end of the day, all we cared about was his happiness, his recovery.
The band didn't matter at all. Honestly, we had a great run for a long time. We had a lot of success. If this thing tore the band apart, that's the way it goes. We are friends, and we will just carry on and do the best for each other.
Q: So you were prepared to call it a day, if making the record didn't work?
A: We were committed to starting (an album). We were committed to the attempt. But there were no guarantees it would work. We all understood that from the beginning. Even when Neil told us he was ready to go back to work. He said, "I don't know if I can, but I think I am ready to try".
He hadn't played his drums in four years, except for a short, two-week period. This is a guy who is probably the greatest rock drummer in the world, if not the greatest drummer in the world. He practised every single day, because he wanted to, because it was such an important part of his life.
All that joy in playing died in him. So it was a lot of work he had to go through.
He really asked us if it is okay if he just step out of the whole (promo) thing. "Of course", we said, "don't even think about it." Geddy and I will do everything and try to represent it as best we can, and answer questions about him in a way he would feel good about.
Q: Was there any finished material left over from "Vapor Trails"?
A: Our intention was to write 13 songs and pick the best 10 or 11. When you add it all up, that is about an hour's worth of music, which is fine.
We wrote the 13 songs, and we couldn't leave any of them behind. It is about 68 minutes. It is a lot of music, and it is a tough record to put on and listen to. This one, I think requires three or four listens before you figure out what is going on.
Q: Did Geddy's experience making his solo album, "My Favorite Headache," have an impact on the way you worked together?
A: Absolutely. He learned so much from the making of his own record. When I did (Lifeson's side-project) Victor, I did it for personal reasons. I needed a strong kick in the pants. I have a tendency to get lazy, and I needed to push myself. I learned a lot about my abilities and weaknesses. Geddy spent over a year on his record. He came out with such confidence and sense of arrangement and composition. I was really impressed.
I was very proud of the work he did. His record sounds great. I like things a little harder. That is what we bring to the table -- I bring the heavier, harder stuff, and he is the more melodic stuff.
It is well recorded. The songs are good. I just think it made him feel so much better about his strengths. It made everything easier for us to work together.
I knew we would be producing the record. I knew the involvement would be pretty intense. We decided to do it ourselves, although we brought Paul Northfield in, six months into the project. From the beginning, we decided this is something we would do ourselves.
I felt it was important to do some production, so I would know something about diplomacy in the studio. Get to sense ups and downs and how to keep an even keel through the whole thing. We prepared ourselves very well for the beginning of this record.
Q: Earlier in the band's career, there was very little hip cachet in being a Rush fan, and certainly a lot of critics had a field day with you. Lately, it seems to have turned a corner, whether it was Pavement mentioning Geddy in their song "Stereo" or the Beastie Boys opening their last tour with "Tom Sawyer." Is there any sense of vindication?
A: We never really troubled ourselves with that. We just did what we did and keep going and going. Journalists that we felt were unfairly critical, who jumped on the bandwagon to put us down - I don't think any of them are around. But I'm still doing what I do.
We stuck to our guns. If that wasn't cool, I don't particularly think I am a cool guy. We are musicians in a band. We love what we do, and we work very hard. We take it seriously, but we are all easy-going, middle-class guys. A sense of revenge doesn't come into play.
It is nice to know. It is flattering. I guess since the early '90s, this has been something that has come back to us, that we have influenced a lot of bands. That grunge period. It makes sense, we were playing all those cities. We were always a cultish kind of band. Not on the radio a lot. We played hard, but on the muso side. I can see that that was perhaps an influence.
I think the greatest influence we have had on these bands is that we have proven you can do it on your own terms. I don't think they sound like Rush, any of these people. But we have shown if you stick to your guns and persevere, you can do it on your own terms.
Q: You were in the studio on Sept. 11. Did the attacks in New York and Washington have any impact on the music?
A: Everything was already written by that point. The last song that needed to be finished was "Peaceable Kingdom." It was already written and slated to be an instrumental song. Paul (co-producer Northfield) said "You guys are nuts if you make this an instrumental song. You should really come up with some good lyrics for this".
Neil gave it some thought, and what happened on Sept. 11, that was really a direct result of that. I think he wrote the lyrics the following week.
(The lyrics to "Peaceable Kingdom" include these lines: "All this time we're shuffling and laying out all our cards/While a billion other dealers are slipping past our guards/All this time we're hoping and praying we all might learn/While a billion other teachers are teaching them how to burn".)
I'm glad it wasn't an instrumental. It is my favourite song on the record. It has such a weird character to it. Lyrically I think it is great. The chorus, ("a wave toward the clearing sky ..."), it is so powerful and visual. It is such a great contrast from the heaviness of the rest of the song.
Q: Rush fans are organizing the second Rush convention in Toronto this year (July 12-14, three days prior to the band's July 17 performance at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre). How do you feel about that kind of stuff?
A: We are really thankful for it. It is really wonderful that happens, that people have enough interest in the band to undertake that. I hope it is spirited and everybody has a good time. And I hope no one is offended that we are not involved in it.
To me, it is strictly a fan thing. I know they would love to have the band involved in some way. We just feel embarrassed. It is just hard to deal with, the adulation and all that.
Last year, when they had it, they asked if we could donate some things for an auction. Ged and I were working very hard during that period. We were figuring out, should we go down? When should we do it?
Before you know it, we got caught up in work, and we felt very guilty about it afterwards. This year, it is around the time we are on the road, unfortunately. But maybe we can do something for it, somehow.
Q: Rush used to be pretty active in making videos, but that end of the business has changed. Do you plan to do any videos for the album?
A: There is no plan to do a video right now. I was never crazy about them. I don't think anybody wants to see a bunch of 43-year-old guys jumping around pretending to play a song.
There are ways of doing it. Tool is a great example of doing it, as dark as they are. I suppose we could do some kind of art video to music, but we don't see the point. Our name has a certain connotation. It goes to MTV and is immediately sent back. We have had good support from Much over the years.
We have a lot of footage from the last tour, and we will probably have some from this tour. Maybe we will do a nice package, a DVD package, of a show. No plans, because we are so busy in the production of the tour, but it is all there. We know it is all there, and we will get around to it.
Q: What about a live album from this tour?
A: Don't even talk about that anymore. The last one (1998's "Different Stages") was the best one. It has the best packaging of the stuff from Hammersmith Odeon. We included that so you get 20 years. You can see the rawness of those days and the maturity and confidence of the more recent days. We are proud of it, but it is an enormous headache to do a live record.
Q: Weeks before it was due for release, "Vapor Trails" somehow leaked out on the Internet. How does that make you feel?
A: We spent 14 months working so hard on this record. We spent a lot of money making this record. We spent a lot of money on the packaging, making it the best record we could. A lot of time and energy went into it.
To have it on the Internet and download a crappy file is heartbreaking for us. Unfortunately, that is the way it is now. True Rush fans will go get the record, because they want to have that connection, and the lyrics.
We don't hire someone to do these things. We do it. We work with great people, but our involvement is total, in every aspect of everything we do. It is an extension of us. It is really important that that is connected in your hands.
It is a sad state of affairs that it is like that. Some people ... I see the advantages of that, a great forum for people who want to share music with people.
But to say music is free is not true. Music costs millions of dollars, to make this record or a Korn record. There is a lot of money involved. If you say record companies are greedy or uncaring, you keep doing stuff like this, downloading files and taking money out of the system, it is affecting bands that don't get a chance anymore, to sign a deal.
It is affecting the band that gets a one-record deal, instead of a five-record deal. So they can learn their trade on the first two albums and hopefully that third or fourth album is the one. That doesn't happen anymore.