By Paul Freeman [September 2002 interview]

Rush fans had to wait a long time for new songs from the band. "Vapor Trails" (Atlantic) marks the Canadian band's first studio album in more than five years. When the trio did finally assemble again, it took time to rekindle the chemistry.

"Normally it takes us four or five months to write and record a record," guitarist Alex Lifeson says. "This record took 14 months. The first two months I don't think we wrote anything that we were really crazy about. We took a break for a week, then came back in and had sudden clarity. We knew what was working and what wasn't. From that moment on, things started to come together. The record really took on a life of its own at that point.

"There's certainly a spirit and a passion to it that I haven't heard on a Rush record in a long time," Lifeson adds. "We all came into it just wanting so much for it to happen and for it to work. I think that shows on the record."

The lengthy hiatus came as a result of two tragedies that struck drummer/lyricist Neil Peart. His daughter died in a car accident and then his wife died of cancer.

"I just felt so hollow," Lifeson says. "Neil's daughter was 19 when she was killed and it just broke everybody's heart to such an extent that nothing seemed beautiful anymore. And music is such a joyful thing.

"I didn't listen to music. I couldn't play. And that was just me. So you can only imagine what it must have been like for Neil. It was a long, tough road for him, just to even listen to music of any kind. It was very difficult for him. It was a very slow process."

Eventually, music drew Lifeson back. He picked up his guitar again and recorded with his 25-year-old son, an electronic music artist. "I guess I realized that it's just so in me, so deep in my blood, and I do derive so much joy from it that I couldn't be away from it for too long. I have a studio at home and I mean, it’s there all the time. I can’t get away from it."

Lifeson produced other acts. Lead singer Geddy Lee completed a solo record. But as for Rush, it appeared that after more than two decades of hit albums and tours, the band was history.

"As the years went by, both Geddy and I thought it was unlikely that we would be working together again as Rush. It seemed that Neil's recovery was very slow and very, very difficult. For a long time, it seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the darkness. We weren’t really that optimistic about it happening and I think we sort of accepted that this quite possibly was the end. And the most important thing was that Neil find his strength and again and find his balance and at least live somewhat of a normal life. Whether the band was included in that or not, didn’t seem to matter. It was all left up to Neil, and he didn't have the strength to say 'I'm going to come back in five years' or 'That's it. I can't do this ever again. I've lost it.' We were in a void. I felt that we had a terrific run, this wonderful experience that's very unique even in the rock world, and if that's the way it's going to end, then I have to accept it and move on.

“And it took me a couple years to feel that I could actually move on from it. But I did get to that point. It ended so abruptly. And there really wasn’t any closure.”

Then something happened. Peart met a woman.

"He fell in love and saw that there was beauty in the world," Lifeson says. "He started to rebuild his life based on that. He came to us and said, 'I'd like to try it. I don't know if I can do it, but I'd like to try it.'"

So the trio tried to put the pieces of Rush back together again. “Geddy and I had kept in touch,” Lifeson says. “We’re very good friends, as well as working partners. We’re always talking to each other. I’ve been in the band since I was 15 and it’s such a part of my life. But he spent a lot of time on his record, away from everybody else, because of the workload. So for all of us to come back in and feel what your position was and how you were going to work together, that took a bit of time.

"It was a very delicate beginning for all of us," Lifeson says. "We kind of needed to find our place, our positions. The first couple of weeks we spent really just talking, hanging out and getting to know each other again. ... But once we did, it settled in, in a way that was far beyond anything that we'd done in the past."

Their method of interaction had changed, and not only because of the tragedies. "We'd aged five years. Particularly in your 40s, your advancing years have a more profound effect than they do, say, in your 30s. We came into the project feeling a lot of different feelings, a little trepidation, certainly more maturity, greater focus and a greater acceptance of one another’s strengths. There was a trust in each other's strengths that I don't think existed before.

“And Geddy did a great job on his solo record, I think. And I’d been producing some bands and focusing on some other areas. And we each brought certain strengths to this project and we found that we completely accepted and respected each other for that. So he’d leave me to do things , whereas, in the past, he wanted to be a part of that. And the same with me, with him. I always wanted to be around, when we were doing every aspect of the writing process. With this record, I found that his skills as an arranger were so acute that I could come in four or five hours late or show up in the morning and say, ‘You know, you’ve got some stuff to do here. I’ll come back later.’ And in the past, we were always in each other’s faces,” Lifeson chuckled. “But it worked and it was always in a positive way. But this made it much more relaxing. And it also afforded you a little bit of objectivity.”

Rush didn’t worry about what had been happening in the rock marketplace while they were gone. They’ve never followed trends.

“In fact, none of us listen to any music while we’re writing, for fear of being influenced in some small way. The only record I bought, when we were making this record, was the last Tool record. And that was the only show I went to see, when they played here in Toronto.

With such songs as "One Little Victory," "Ghost Rider" and "Sweet Miracle," the band is back.

"The absence made us all really want to play. We always enjoyed working together in the studio, writing together. It was just whether we could do it in a way that was valid and important," Lifeson says. "We didn't want to just make another Rush record. We didn’t want to just go through the motions. We wanted it to be different and to focus on other things, other aspects of our writing. We wanted a freshness to it ... and I think we achieved that with this record.

"We had been guilty of being a little too clinical in the way we made records. We were overly focused on performance sometimes with our records. We would spend huge amounts of time on the smallest little details. Over the last few records, we were moving away from that. That wasn't important to us anymore. It was the spirit and the spontaneity of the performance that mattered."

Lifeson feels that those ingredients are clearest on the "Vapor Trails" album. "Most of this record is from jams that Geddy and I played and then, basically, Neil figured out his drum parts. Put those on and then maybe we embellished it with a little bit of guitar atmospherics or some more vocal things and that was it."

"For instance," Lifeson adds, "'Peaceable Kingdom,' that song's basically all from jams that were spliced together. What you hear is what was recorded at that moment and only played once. I love that whole idea. It's not like writing the song and then everybody rehearsed it and then you recorded it again. It loses something like that. This caught the spirit at the moment. That's the most important element of this record, I think."

The next challenge was preparing to present the music live. “It took a great deal of work. We spent six or seven weeks in pretty intensive preproduction and then rehearsal. And then once we get out there for a couple of weeks, I think we find our groove. And we settle in.”

The band has taken their new songs on the road, "playing better than we’ve ever played... ever," Lifeson says. “And the response from the audience has been exceptional.”

They’re also playing outdoor amphitheaters for the first time. "The sheds are a whole different environment than inside an arena. It's a more joyful experience, a happier, more casual, easygoing experience, I guess because it's still light outside when you go on. It bares everything, and you just seem more one on one with your audience. It's not so dramatic as in a dark venue. I see a lot of old faces and I see a lot of young faces and it's very promising."

Rush has always had extraordinarily devoted fans. Lifeson explains, “It’s the nature of the music, the nature of the lyrics, the fact that you either love us or hate us. And our fans, who are really close to the band, like the fact that some people hate us. And it makes it that much more important to them.”

As for the band’s future, Lifeson says, “We’re taking it day by day. One thing that we’ve learned through this whole experience is to not take anything for granted, because it can change in a split second.