Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee Are Playing Rush Songs Again — For Their Ears Only

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Alex Lifeson is working on the second album for his new band, Envy of None - Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Alex Lifeson is working on the second album for his new band, Envy of None - Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

As far as Alex Lifeson is concerned, the band to which he devoted five decades of his life is over, but that doesn’t mean he’s done as a musician. The former Rush guitarist is hard at work on new music in his well-stocked home studio, recording guitar parts for the second album by Envy of None, the band he co-founded in 2021 with bassist Andy Curran (formerly of the Canadian rock band Coney Hatch), keyboardist/guitarist Alfio Annibalini, and the talented 27-year-old vocalist Maiah Wynne. He’s also started his own custom equipment company, Lerxst, which sells guitars, amps, and pedals capable of reproducing his classic sounds. At the same time, he reveals to Rolling Stone that he’s been jamming with his best friend and bandmate, Geddy Lee — but that definitely doesn’t mean they’re planning a tour, despite Lee’s best efforts to the contrary.

Geddy mentioned you had some health issues recently. How are you doing?
Yeah, it’s just some stomach issues. I had surgery 10 years ago for a hiatal hernia and that failed after a few years, and then I had the surgery again last July and it was very complicated. It was much longer. So I’ve had some complications and issues since then. I had nausea for nine months. I lost a little bit of weight. It is what it is and it’s permanent. So I just have to learn to live with it and work around it. It’s changed my diet. I don’t drink anymore. I certainly don’t smoke or anything like that. Well, I don’t smoke cigarettes [laughs]. It’s been a challenging year, but I think I’m incrementally getting better. And like I said, I’m learning to live with it.

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I know you’re a wine guy. Giving that up can’t be fun.
I love wine and I’ve been a collector for, boy, 40, 45 years. So that was a little bit difficult to give it up, and I will have a glass of wine once in a while. I pay for it, but I will have it once in a while. But I do find that I feel a little more clear-headed when I get up in the morning, not that I was a heavy drinker.

Does cannabis help with the nausea at least?
Does it ever! Yeah. They gave me the kind of meds they give for cancer patients for nausea. They’re pretty powerful and they have their own issues, side effects. But I find that just a puff or two will take the edge off that nausea. ‘Cause for me, it was quite bad. It would lay me out for three or four hours when I had those episodes. Anyways, doing much better now.

That’s good. In 2020 you were also hospitalized for a little bit with Covid, right?
I was in the ICU for three days. Got Covid coming back from Florida and boy, I was sick. Developed pneumonia, never been that sick, but got through it. And I slept so much over those three days that about a week after I recovered from the Covid, I felt amazing [laughs]. I’ve been on medication that is very challenging for my immune system, so I’m not taking any chances. I’m completely vaxxed, and I had Covid again a little over a year ago, and it was, I didn’t even notice it. I stayed in bed. It was like a cold. The worst part of it was watching Netflix all day for that day.

The physical illnesses can’t have helped, but even without them, you’ve had to go from being the guy in Rush to figuring out who you are after being the guy in Rush. What’s that been like for you? It can’t have been a minor thing. 
No, it’s not a minor thing. You know that after we ended Rush in 2015, Ged and I still felt like we had lots of gas in the tank. We weren’t ready to retire or to finish. Then a year later, it got complicated with Neil’s illness. I kept writing and playing, but I didn’t really dedicate myself to it too much. I played a lot of golf in the summer. And I got to the point where I thought, is this it? After 50 years of being a musician, I’m just going to be a crappy golfer into my older age? And that really got to bug me after a while.

Then the opportunity came along to work with Andy in the Envy of None project. It was a godsend to me. I just loved working on that project. We’re working on the second album now. I adore it. The material is so strong and good and it’s coming together beautifully. And having the experience with the first one and what we learned from that, this one’s going to be a really great record. It’s going to sound great. I don’t care if anybody buys it or not. I’m just happy to do it and happy to be doing what I’m doing at 70 years old. I’m playing guitar. Every day at night, I play for an hour before I go to bed without fail. I spend my day in here working on this stuff. I feel just really happy about that part of my life right now.

This time you’re involved from the start with the Envy of None album — did you come in almost halfway through last time?
Not really halfway through. Andy discovered Maiah through a talent contest and and he sent her a song that he’d written that I played guitar on. When she did her vocal on it and sent it back, it was like, the guitar stuff that I put on, I just used plugins and it wasn’t tight. I said, “Erase everything I sent you. I’m going to redo everything properly.” And then that’s how the project just started rolling. This one, it’s obviously right from the start. Maiah came up here to Toronto for a week in March to do some vocals. And it was nice to be together, but things have changed so much. That’s not how you make records anymore. The way we do it now, we send our files around. Everybody keeps building this pyramid until it’s done. And that’s a nice way to work, having the independence and the lack of distractions in the studio.

You barely solo on the first Envy of None album. Is this one like that, more textural?
I had a couple of solos on the first one. Yes, the second one is like that. It’s got some super funky, like classic funk tones on it. It’s again, quite ethereal. It’s very cinematic, the material, very rhythmic, but there are some beautiful moments. It’s just dripping with feel. And this is what I really noticed about this particular project, everything that we’re doing, there’s just a different level in how we’re translating these ideas into real feel things and not so technical. And there’s one song that I actually play, like, an Alex Lifeson solo on it.

 Oh, really?
I thought, I’ll try to do something like that. I’ve been getting away from that for so long. And I did it, and we played it for a few people in the band and a couple of other people that are associated with us. And they were all like, “Oh, my God, an Alex Lifeson solo! Finally, we get to hear you play like you used to play.” And it’s got me thinking that maybe I’ll crack a few more solos on this record.

Nice. I think you were hesitant to go out with Envy of None or go out on tour in any circumstances. Is that still your thinking?
Yeah, on the one hand, it would be awesome to do it because I think the presentation of us live would be stunning with the right lights and and the right setup on stage with the right players. It would be really great if we could recreate the feel of the records. But at the same time, this is not latter-day Rush. This is a start of a smaller unit. Traveling probably in a van! [Laughs.] Or I don’t know if it would be that basic, but I wouldn’t want to start all over again for any reason. I’m just too old and I have too much stuff in my life that I’m loving and happy with. And it’s great to be with my family on a more permanent basis and all of that.

So then that goes back to the whole thing about Rush. Ged and I are hanging out a lot — and we always do — but now we’re hanging out at his place and we’re playing. And we’re actually playing a lot of Rush songs.

Wow.
It’s funny because we sound like a really bad tribute band for the first three or four run-throughs on these things. It’s “Oh, my God, what did I play there? Why did I play that so hard?” And then muscle memory kicks in, and we’re having a ball doing it. It’s good for the fingers. We’re together in a room like we’ve always been. That’s been really good, but there’s no chance that we’re going to get a drummer and go back on the road as the rebirth of Rush or something like that. And if we wanted to write new material, nobody cares about new material anymore. They just want to hear the old stuff from guys like us.

 Rush fans would care, though! Rush fans are special.
Yeah, they are special. But maybe the feeling is that it’s just really about taking people back to an earlier time in their lives that they have very fond and vivid memories of, and I get it and that’s great. And then you do it for the money. And that’s not what we were ever about or what we would want to do. Offers come in all the time, but I don’t know. I don’t think that’s something that we’re really interested in.

I must say, clearly you and Ged are on slightly different pages about this. I think Ged even was trying to nudge you publicly, based on the last time I talked to him about seven months ago. He thinks you guys can do something. He had a whole vision for it, which was more people on stage, so it was not as much burden on you guys. And it wouldn’t have to be called Rush. And he said he’s working on you with it, but obviously the work has not been successful.
No, we’ve talked about it in depth, and I was waffling between maybe considering it and not. And then my health issues came up. I know if we went on the road, it couldn’t be like we used to do it. You need to go out for five or six months. You can’t just go out and play on the weekends. It just doesn’t work that way, especially if it’s going to be a big production. I don’t know. We talk a lot about it. We’re in different worlds. I’ve been working on this Envy of None stuff for four or five years now. He’s been busy writing his books and he travels a lot and he does all those things that are important to him.

He hasn’t been playing on a regular basis, and that’s why he really loves it when we’re together like this. And this is where we came from when we were kids. This is not about putting something together for a possible tour or a record or something. This is the joy of those two teenagers sitting in a room looking at each other and trying to learn how to play an instrument better.

There’s a certain beauty to that full-circle image.
That’s the joy that we’re feeling. And I just don’t know if doing something like that would wreck it. Or wreck the legacy that Rush has left. When it happened, it was disappointing for us. And then Neil got sick and all of that stuff, but our legacy is intact that we went out on a high note. That tour was great. It looked great. We played really well. We bonded even more so with our audience. I’d rather have that and the sadness of not doing it again, than doing it again and sitting on a chair on stage because I can’t stand [laughs]. I’d rather be remembered for that than something that’s more current..

And yet I’m sure Ged continues to tweak you about it a little.
Yeah, we do. We talk about it, but at the same time, he’s my best friend and he loves me and he cares for me. He knows that I do have issues both physical and emotional with this whole idea. And he respects that we have so much respect and love for each other. I would do something like that, that he wanted to do, because I love him and I want to make him happy. But he knows that I wouldn’t be happy. It’s the bond that we have.

It is amazing that Paul McCartney himself tried to convince you.
Yes, it was. And I asked him to be our manager, but I said, “Would you be our caterer?” And then he said he’d be a caterer. And then I knew I made a mistake because he’s a vegan and there’s no way I’m giving up steak [laughs].

When you say emotional issues, what are you referring to?
It’s a big emotional price you pay to go on the road and be away from your family, especially after so many years of it. And I would feel that our legacy is compromised, and that’s an emotional response to that. The physical stuff is obvious and you can work around it with good, solid discipline. I could work around some of these issues, but I don’t think I would be happy in my heart if we were to do something like that for all those reasons. I really would feel like we were doing an injustice to our fans and that would be just a money grab.

We get offers all the time, and they’re pretty substantial, but I don’t know. It’s not enough for me. How much do you need? I’m trying to get rid of stuff. I sold the bulk of my guitars. I had some cars. I sold those. I had a house in the country that I sold. I want to be slimmer and a little tighter in, in my life with fewer anchors around my neck.

At one point you were worried about arthritis. Did you get that under control?
I’ve done really well keeping it in control. I’m on two biologics. Biologics are very strong medications with lots of unpleasant side effects, but these two that I take really have helped me a lot. I’m only really starting to feel my arthritis, particularly in my thumbs, and in my feet a little bit, in my wrist. So I’m at that stage now at this point in my life where these medications are helpful, but they’re not gonna eliminate the arthritis. I’m playing through. I struggle sometimes with it. But playing every day really does help both my arthritis and my heart and my brain.

You’ve started your own equipment company, Lerxst, with your own pedals and guitars and amps. Did you learn something about the essence of your own sound as you got them all together?
The amps for sure. That started with a Marshall Silver Jubilee in the studio for Clockwork Angels. Really liked the amp a lot. I tried to buy one, couldn’t find one anywhere. No one would let them go. So I spoke to Mojotone and they said, “We can build anything.” So that was the platform that we based it on and then we just tweaked it from there to my liking, to my tonal preferences. That [Omega] amp was great. I’ve used it since then, and we revamped it in the last couple of years, gave it a facelift and then re-released it. And the pedals are a lot of fun. The By-Tor pedal is really an Omega amp in a pedal. It has very smooth distortion.The Snow Dog is a kind of a crazier pedal with the octave distortion, and it’s really cool for very specific things, but the By-Tor you can use for everything. And the guitars are off to a great start. [Partner company] Godin has done an amazing job on quality control.. The playability of the guitar is great. There’s a couple of them up on the wall behind me. So I use them too! I’m not just the owner.

The Edge and Mike McCready and a few other people, big names, have actually gone to using digital amp emulators live recently. It almost feels like the tube amp is an endangered species if it’s going that far.
I guess it’s convenient and they sound good, but when you use an amp with tubes and you record, you can see inside the sound of the guitar. When you use a plug-in, no matter which one it is, it sounds like the sound has been pasted onto the screen. It doesn’t have the depth and it doesn’t have that dynamic response. Emulator amps, it’s convenient when you’re playing live. It’s the same sound exactly every night. It’s not like putting a mic on and it’s too damp or the air is too thin or whatever that affects the sound night to night. But who cares if it affects the sound night to night? That’s cool. I just love the more analog feel, the tubes vibrating and heating up and all that energy that’s being created, rather than diodes and all that stuff that’s very sterile. I’m sure someone like Neil Young would agree with this a thousand percent.

When you read Ged’s book, was there any big surprise in it for you? There’s a guy you know very well, obviously.
I don’t think there were any big surprises. He wanted me to read it early, so he sent me the first edited version. I laughed out loud. I cried. I was mesmerized. The flow of the book, it’s just so great to read. Obviously I related to so much that was in it. He wanted my involvement just to corroborate things that he wasn’t sure about how he remembered. And oddly enough, there were a number of things that we had different memories of. It’s not odd, sorry. It’s actually normal. In any situation that you share, everybody has their own different perspective. So there were a number of things where I jogged his memory and vice versa. But I loved it.

I still think there’s a great book in you. Maybe a funnier one.
It would be a funny one for sure.

There’s a few Rush songs that have been on my mind lately. “Xanadu” is one, and somehow you guys recorded that in one take.
We had a rehearsal space in Toronto when we were planning to make the record. We had some time; we went in and just started rehearsing. We were well-rehearsed probably for months with that song. And then we went in to record it. We played it once while they were getting all the levels at Rockfield [Studios]. Pat Moran was the engineer. To get all the levels, we played about half the song and then we went in to record and we just played the song all the way through. And Pat, he just freaked out. He said, “How do you play 11 minutes from top to bottom with all these changes with a 12-string and a six-string and bass pedals? Who does this?” He was so blown away by it. Not every song is like that, though. But that one was!

Another one is “Jacob’s Ladder.” Such a bizarre and awesome song. It’s like a sound sculpture or something. It’s also one of the stoniest Rush songs.
[Laughs.] Oh yeah. Boy, I guess, again, we were in rehearsal. We rented a rehearsal space. I think that might’ve been in a farm. And we took a month and wrote the material and we played it live for a long time. Then we didn’t play that song for quite a while. We got requests for it at the start of every tour to play that. And we thought, nah, it’s not one of our favorites to play. Until we actually sat down and listened to it and tried playing it, and it was hard to play. We thought, OK, that’s a good reason to play it.

A slightly more recent one, “Test for Echo.” The title track is such a great song.
That was quite a composition, too. I think we just had a rental space in the city, and you work in blocks and pieces and put it all together.

The big surge in that is so badass.  I think it was you guys still flexing your muscles at a slightly later point in your career.
Yeah, like, we can still do this.

“Take that, kids.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.

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