By the time Rush had completed its 40th anniversary tour in 2015, guitarist Alex Lifeson had heard the word “retirement” plenty of times.
But even if the band wasn’t going to continue — and Lifeson emphasizes that he thinks the trio that he formed with Geddy Lee and the late Neil Peart could have kept going — he wasn’t ready to stop making music.
“Moving on to the world of golf and other distractions, it’s OK, but it’s not very fulfilling,” Lifeson, 68, says with a chuckle in a virtual chat.
So he continued to work on music “very casually” after Rush, which sold 40 million records in its 40-plus year career, taking its final bow at the Forum in Los Angeles nearly seven years ago.
He was coaxed into writing and recording a new batch of songs after bassist Andy Curran (Coney Hatch) reached out with some material he had been working on with Maiah Wynne, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Oregon.
“Andy said to me, ‘This is really special. You’ve got to hear her voice,’ ” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recalls.
The spark was instantaneous.
“She was so inspiring to me. We seemed to connect on a strong musical level,” Lifeson says. “We are separated by quite a few years in age and experience, but there is something old-world about her. I may have known her in another life.”
Along with producer and engineer Alfio Annibalini (who also plays keyboards and guitars), Lifeson embarked on a new project called Envy of None with Curran and Wynne. The band will release its self-titled LP this Friday.
With its mix of industrial beats, driving guitars and atmospheric vocals that echoes the sounds of Nine Inch Nails and Evanescence, Lifeson knows the album’s first single, Liar, and its remaining 10 tracks are a departure from the prog-rock sounds of Rush.
“Fans of Rush might expect that it would be something along those lines,” Lifeson says. “But Rush came and went, and it’ll be the only band that I’ll ever be in. This is different. This creative charge has really got me excited about where I’m going to spend the rest of my years making music.”
Envy of None features a pair of songs — the dreamy Kabul Blues and the gritty Spy House — that Lifeson originally released as instrumentals. The album closes with the haunting Western Sunset, an instrumental that Lifeson wrote as a tribute to Peart, who died in 2020.
Creatively renewed by his bandmates in Envy of None, Lifeson discussed his return to music and looked back at Rush’s legacy.
How did this experience with Envy of None differ from your early years coming up with Rush?
“Rush was an established band. We toured for 41 years and we had many, many albums. It was an incredible experience. We were a unit. We had a great love for each other and we really enjoyed working together. We laughed a lot and got along so well. We were a success in so many ways for those reasons. With this project, after the end of Rush, I wasn’t quite ready to retire. I still felt we could have worked some more and I think Geddy (Lee) felt the same way. But for Neil (Peart), it was difficult. He had the toughest job of all of us. The way he played for three hours a night, full on, was unbelievable. We could all understand that, physically, he had enough.
“Then when this project came along, I just felt so excited about working on something that I know how to do. I’ve done this for so long. This is what I’ve always done. Once I got into this groove … I just felt it’s time to shed myself of a bunch of things in my life and look forward more clearly. That’s what’s happened. We sold our house in the country, I’m selling my guitars at an auction in May — the bulk of my guitars. All of these things — I’m clearing house and starting this new direction in my life. It’s quite exciting.”
I read about the auction and I’m looking behind you there and it looks like you still have a lot of guitars.
“I’m such an idiot (laughs). I have 63 guitars in the auction and after they went, I realized I had 30 other guitars. So I guess I’ll never have a shortage. I’ll have to do another auction in 10 years.”
As someone who got Rush’s Moving Pictures as a kid — it was one of the first albums my dad bought me — I didn’t know what to expect from Envy of None. Was this emblematic of the music you were finding yourself listening to as a music fan?
“I’m someone who has a lot of ideas and I love this project because it was challenging to make the guitar sound like it wasn’t a guitar. That was a cool concept for me. I’m sure that some Rush fans might be disappointed — maybe not — but if they’re expecting me to be Alex Lifeson of Rush rather than Alex Lifeson, songwriter, then they might be disappointed.
“I had such a good time working on this material and this is what I like to do. I love music and I love playing — I always have. It’s so deep inside me. It might sound corny to say that, but it’s true.”
I don’t think I know the story of how you came to play the guitar.
“It’s nothing special. I was 12 years old. I was already into music. My sister’s boyfriend had a guitar and he lent it to me and I played around with it, and I got really interested. I begged my parents for a guitar for Christmas and they got me a very cheap electrical guitar. I played that thing for hours, every waking hour. I started a band with John Rutsey who lived across the street, and another guy next door played bass. We were 13-year-old kids in a band. We played parties in people’s basements for chips and Coke. I remember playing in my parents’ basement for 10 friends. So it’s a very rich life of music that started from that age. I knew at 12 years old that music was going to be my life. I never thought twice about it.”
Do you have a favourite track on the new record?
“First of all, these are like our kids. It’s hard to say you love one child more than another. For me, Look Inside, which is what we call our ‘stoner lullaby.’ It was a difficult song for us to put together. We struggled a little bit with it in the early days, but it blossomed into this really cool trippy, drenched journey. I’ve grown to love that song a lot. Old Strings is also one of my favourites. That interplay between Maiah and myself throughout the whole song is quite remarkable to me. It has a few of my favourite moments on the record. It’s a beautifully crafted song. Enemy is a very intense song and I love the production on it. Of course, Western Sunset was a personal favourite.”
Western Sunset was written for Neil. Can you talk a little more about how that came together?
“It was written around the time that we found out Neil was ill. During a visit with him, I was sitting on his balcony and the sun was coming through the trees as the sun was setting. He lived in Santa Monica, so the hills of Malibu were in the background. The moment struck me. It was serene and quiet and calm and we were all feeling this terrible weight of knowing how desperately ill he was. It seems like the sunset represents that closure and it stayed with me. My hope for the song was that I could at least get a sense of the peace and serenity we felt when we were sitting together in that moment. It’s also a good closer for the album because it puts you in that space where you can take in all that music you’ve just listened to and just catch your breath. It’s a deep song for me.”
Rush is a Canadian success story and a local success story in Toronto. What’s your favourite memory of playing in the city?
“Forty-one years of touring, so many experiences. But in Toronto, those early shows at (Maple Leaf) Gardens and those New Year’s Eve shows — those were so exciting and so much fun. Crowds were amazing and fired up to be there. Even the last show we played in Toronto on the R40 tour, we were very proud of the staging. Starting from Clockwork Angels and working our way backwards was a cool idea, and I think the audience responded to it. That particular night was one of the best shows on the tour.”
You mentioned the R40 tour. What was your impression of the band’s final show in Los Angeles?
“That night, I was trying to take in every little thing I could. I remember looking at people I’ve seen for years and years and years coming to our shows. I don’t know them by name, but I knew them as fans who had long supported us. Neil came out from behind his drum kit for the first time in 41 years. Everything that happened that night was so profound, and walking off the stage with our arms around one another was bittersweet for sure. But, at the same time, even though I felt we could have gone longer, I also think that the legacy you leave is based on the last thing you do, and we had a great night on a great tour, and that was a show we were really proud of. We played really, really well. That’s the way I would like to be remembered. We were as professional as we could be right to the very end.”
People will get to the end of Envy of None and, of course, wonder whether there will be more from that band. But also, whether this creative surge could lead to you and Geddy making music together again?
“I still have a few other projects that I’m working on, personally … I have a folder on my monitor titled ‘Envy of None 2,’ so we have a few ideas we’ve started throwing around. It was a really enjoyable, healthy relationship, so I think we’d pursue doing more stuff together. As far as Geddy and I getting together, we’re best friends. He’s working on his book. We try to see each other whenever we can. We still love being together. Whether that leads to something musical, we’ll see. There’s no pressure, and our friendship comes before anything.”
We’re talking here and I can’t help but notice you have a Ukrainian flag behind. I know your parents are from Eastern Europe. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what are your thoughts are about what is happening over there right now?
“When this all started happening a month ago, my mother said it was so shocking to her because she remembered when the Nazi’s came into her town in Serbia very early in the (Second World War) and how terrified they were and how brutal they were. It just seemed to go on and on and on. Then finally the Russians came and got rid of the Germans … and they were quite brutal in a different way. Any invading army is. We could say what the Americans did in Iraq was just as brutal as what we’re seeing. But this is so seemingly uncalled for, so medieval and so wrong in so many ways.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what happened and the frustrations of not being able to do something about it. The politics that goes on behind closed doors that we don’t know about between the major leaders of countries around the world — we have no idea. Everyone just says, ‘Thoughts and prayers,’ but what’s that? It never amounts to anything. It’s so hallow. But it’s hard to know. Do we react emotionally and get involved in a level where it could lead to the end of the planet? I don’t think it would ever get to that point. I don’t think (Russian leader Vladimir) Putin is that dumb. I don’t think he’d destroy Russia for one thing — along with the rest of the world. Or do we just keep trying to figure out to stop it? I don’t know. It’s a difficult issue.”
Envy of None’s self-titled album will be released on April 8.