In conversation: Chad Smith with Alex Lifeson - part two
Last week, MusicRadar kicked off a new podcast series, In Conversation, with famed Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith welcoming his first guest, legendary Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. In Part One of their chat, the two rock icons were voluable, engaged, insightful and hilarious when talking about a variety of topics, everything from Lifeson's first teenaged date with his now-wife of 37 years, Charlene, to Rush's much-ballyhooed induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Smith and Lifeson are no less lively in Part Two, which begins below. Over dinner last April at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, California, the two again chat about the Rock Hall ceremony (Lifeson spills the beans on what was, at the time, a closely guarded secret, that Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins, along with producer Nick Raskulinecz, would perform at the show as mid-'70s-era Rush – in kimonos, no less!).
But there's much more: Smith and Lifeson discuss hobbies such as painting and flying, guitar effects, late former Rush sticksman John Rutsey, what happens when band members just don't work out, and in a strikingly poignant passage, Lifeson recalls Neil Peart's efforts to regain his drumming chops after enduring soul-crushing personal tragedies
In Conversation: Chad Smith with Alex Lifeson - part two begins below:
Smith: Dave and Taylor are gonna just gush!
Lifeson: I know. Taylor came by rehearsals today.
Smith: Did he? He was in Chile or something.
Lifeson: Yeah, he came back yesterday.
Smith: He texted me, like, "What are you doing?"
Lifeson: I can't believe he actually got there.
Smith: That guy's got some energy.
Lifeson: Yeah. Yeah, he's a sweetheart. We were planning on doing some stuff, and just for logistics, they asked him if it would be possible for him to play Neil's kit. It's like giving a right-handed guitar player a left-handed guitar. Neil's snare is really high, and everything's wrong.
Smith: It's like wearing somebody else's shoes or something.
Lifeson: Yeah, you can't do it.
Smith: I sat down at Alex Van Halen's kit once. He sits, I swear…
Lifeson: Really low.
Smith: Really low. His snare is above… I'm a tall guy. He's not as tall as me. Everything is up here. It's "Bang, bang!" And your knees are like… I was like, "How the fuck do you play?" It's crazy. I was like, "Kink, kink!" I couldn't… [Lifeson laughs] So he's going to tackle that monster. What song are you going to do?
Lifeson: Well, Dave and Nick Raskulinecz…
Smith: Yeah, of course. Very quiet man...
Lifeson: When does this come out?
Smith: I have no idea.
Lifeson: They've got something playing, yeah. [They laugh]
Smith: Good. That's all we're going to say about it.
Lifeson: They're going to the 2112 Overture, but they're going to wear kimonos. Taylor's going to have the big moustache that he had…
Smith: Ohhh, yes!
Lifeson: And they're going to play the Overture, and then we'll come in after they finish it at the end, and do a couple songs.
Lifeson: They want to get it all right. [They laugh]
Smith: Who's you? Who's playing you? Grohl?
Lifeson: That's Grohl, yeah.
Smith: That's great. See, because I know you love… You were dressed as [laughs] Amy Winehouse in your tour booklet?
Lifeson: Yeah, I don't know where that came from.
Smith: Where's that come from? How long ago was that?
Lifeson: It seemed like a good idea at the time. I think it was the last tour.
Smith: Was it before she…?
Lifeson: Yeah. Maybe she saw the picture and –
Smith: Couldn't take it.
Lifeson: – couldn't take it anymore, because I was better looking.
Smith: Being made fun of by Canadian gentlemen. Did you make a good Amy Winehouse?
Lifeson: I don't know. What do you mean by good? [They laugh]
Smith: Good is a subjective word.
Lifeson: It is.
Smith: Good, like handsome? I was a handsome Amy.
Lifeson: Portly. She's a little thinner.
Smith: A handsome Amy Winehouse. Maybe when she was going through one of her not-so-healthy times, maybe.
Lifeson: Maybe. I probably look like a healthier Amy Winehouse, unfortunately.
Smith: Yeah, I don't think she for to the… I don't know. And you paint? I didn't know you were a painter.
Lifeson: I'm not really.
Smith: You Renaissance man.
Lifeson: I really enjoy it. I love it. I enjoyed art in school. I've always done little drawings and stuff like that. I don't really know what I'm doing with the painting, but I experiment. I got into it about six or seven years ago. I got a request from the Kidney Foundation in Canada to get involved with their... with a program that they run annually, where they get different celebrity artists.
Smith: Then they auction them?
Lifeson: Right, they auction it. It's called… Brush of Hope, I think. I did a painting, just a little acrylic painting on the little board they send you, with the little paints that they give you.
Smith: Did it have numbers on it?
Lifeson: No numbers. It sold for $7,000 or $8,000. I was so thrilled, as they were.
Smith: [Claps] I bet. Do you want some peppa?
Lifeson: Sure. Most of these things sell for between $25 and $100... thank you. It was a pretty big deal. They asked me to come back, and I thought, "For sure." This is a great idea. Since then, I now buy my own canvasses. I do bigger canvasses. I spent a couple thousand dollars on paints, so I can do some really decent-quality work. I still don't know what I'm doing.
Smith: So what?
Lifeson: I'm still experimenting. A lot of stuff, I kind of redo and paint over. But it's getting there. I really enjoy it.
Smith: Do you have a studio at your place? What do you do?
Lifeson: I sit at the table… the dining room table.
Smith: Not like …
Lifeson: No. I laid out a bunch of newspaper, and set everything up where it's nice and sunny, and a couple of lamps when I'm working in the evening. I got a little tabletop easel, so I can set it up there, and get a different perspective on it.
Smith: That's so cool.
Lifeson: The last one I did …
Smith: You could start painting guitars.
Lifeson: You know, I was asked to do that, again for a charity. There's something about working on a canvas that makes it realer. It takes it out of what the other thing that I do.
Smith: Yeah, that's true. That makes sense. I get it.
Lifeson: In fact, they ran a series of an earlier painting, and it got prints and sold a few hundred, for $100 or something.
Smith: You can retire.
Lifeson: Yeah, it raised a lot of money for them.
Smith: That's really great, too.
Lifeson: It's really great. I'm really proud of it.
Smith: This is really good.
Lifeson: I'll try one of those, for sure.
Smith: That's so cool. Later on, you can be like... you liked it in school, but then you never really did it after school.
Lifeson: Yeah. Charlene's an amazing artist. She was tops in her class. We have some stuff at home that she did in high school that is just so beautiful – mind-blowing. But soon became a mom, and I was away…
Smith: She didn't keep it up?
Lifeson: She never got a chance to really do it. She's been trying, but her whole life is so busy. It's too bad. It's really a waste that she doesn't do that. But you never know. It is a lot of fun. I enjoy that a lot.
Smith: Is it relaxing?
Lifeson: It's relaxing. I put some music on, and I'll have a puff every once in a while and get creative. Before I know it, it's dark outside. And I start in the morning – I've had nine cups of coffee. When I'm doing it, I can't stop thinking about it. I keep wanting to go back. "I've got to... I just thought of something. I know how I can feather that color out." It's great. At the end of the day, you feel like you're doing something that's helping somebody else.
Smith: That's great.
Lifeson: I used to fly… my pilot's license.
Smith: Flea's getting his pilot license right now.
Lifeson: Is he? Good for him.
Smith: He's just going to start solo.
Lifeson: What does he want? OK, so he's about 15 hours or so, 18 hours into it.
Smith: I think so. He's been doing it …
Lifeson: What are his intentions?
Smith: He's going to get a little Cessna. I can't remember the name of the plane. He's going to buy a plane, like a four-seater.
Lifeson: A 182, something like that?
Smith: I can't remember.
Lifeson: Something a little bit bigger?
Smith: No, not too big. It has all the latest modern –
Lifeson: Avionics, yeah.
Smith: A safe …
Lifeson: He's just planning on being a recreational flyer, and just going up.
Smith: Right. I think so, yes. You did that?
Lifeson: I did do that. I got my license in 1980, and then I was so keen after I got my license. It was a challenge. We were touring a lot back then. We were gone for long periods of time. It took me a year to get my license, because I couldn't fly. I was away a lot. When I was home, I went as much as I could. Winter, it's minus 30 – that's when winter was winter, and you aren't going to fly on those days. It's just too cold.
I was so into it. I wanted something that would challenge me, that I would do that would, again, be different from being on tour and playing and all of that stuff, and force me to be very responsible about what I was doing, and the application of this thing that I was learning.
After I got my license, I got my multi-engine rating. I got a float rating, I got a night rating – I got basically everything except my instrument rating. I have lots of instrument time, but... this is something that he should be aware of, too, and he probably is. Unless you're going to be really serious about your instrument rating, and really work towards it and keep it current, then you're better off to not get it and just be a recreational flyer when it's sunny and nice outside, and go and enjoy it.
Smith: You can't fly at night if you're…
Lifeson: You can get a night rating to fly at night. For an instrument where you're in cloud and those sort of things, things can happen so, so very quickly. If you don't have the experience, and you're up to date with it, it can be extremely dangerous.
Smith: I think the Kennedy had …
Lifeson: John Kennedy is a perfect example. He went out at dusk. He figured, "It's still light outside. I can get there, just as it's getting dark. I'll be fine." He had a fair bit of experience, but not a great deal, and no instrument – from what I understand – no instrument experience. The thing is, at dusk, that's maybe the worst time because there's no horizon. That's what happened. He got disoriented, because he couldn't see the horizon. Even though it wasn't night... he's looking for this, and he's not looking at his instruments. What he should have done, as soon as he sensed any kind of problem, was to immediately turn back and go back to his departure airport. But you know, that's not the way guys think, mostly.
Smith: Yeah. "Oh, I can make it. I want to get there."
Lifeson: It happened so, so quickly.
Smith: He's taking it very seriously. He's a pretty responsible guy. I don't know how far he wants to go, but I know recreational. I'll ask him about the whole thing.
Lifeson: I'm sure he's …
Smith: He wants to get a plane. He's into it.
Lifeson: It is fun.
Smith: He's like, "I just want to fly around and go here."
Lifeson: He lives here?
Smith: In California, the coast.
Lifeson: Exactly. All over the place.
Smith: He's got a house in Big Bear.
Lifeson: Easy. That's an easy flight during the day. It's nice.
Smith: I think that's his plan. What happened, you lost interest in it?
Lifeson: If you own your own airplane, you can go and fly it any time you want. Staying current on your license, after I think 40, is an annual physical that you go for. After a while, I wasn't flying that much, so I wasn't getting my minimum annual... It's not a lot, 10 or 15 hours. I just kind of lost interest in it. I was playing golf.
Smith: Life happens – other things, kids, whatever.
Lifeson: The kids, grandkids, all that stuff. If you're not current every month... if you haven't flown in a month, if you're renting, you have to go back for another…
Smith: Is that right?
Lifeson: Yeah, you have to go with an instructor, fly around for an hour. He'll sign you off that you're…
Smith: You're thinking, "I want to go here next week."
Lifeson: It's too much work. I just want to go flying for an hour.
Smith: Exactly. "I've got to go with this guy now?" I get it.
Lifeson: I kind of lost interest in that.
Smith: I know that you're like "gadget guy." You like, I think… correct me if I'm wrong… pedals, and things that go "ping"? You like all that stuff?
Lifeson: I love all that stuff. I've always been interested in that sort of thing, right from the very beginning.
Smith: From your sound, or in your mind, what you're trying to... I know it depends on the music and where you're at, and what you're writing and stuff. How much does it dictate? Is it after the fact? You're in the studio and the song is developing, and like, "This is going to work?" Or can it be from the beginning, like The Edge, his thing. It happens both ways?
Lifeson: That's a great question. I think probably in the past, I would utilize effects or tonal shaping, more from the beginning. Less so now, because I really believe that the core of the song should work, no matter what you do.
Smith: You can play it on acoustic or whatever.
Lifeson: Exactly. That's the real test, is on an acoustic. If it works on an acoustic, it's going to work no matter what you do. It's easy to get caught up in the technology and be enamored by the sound of something. But it's just that – it's a superficial thing. It's not deep inside what makes the song a song, and makes it compelling. I've moved away, much more. It's more of an afterthought now. I've always been ensconced in the technical end of it, from a wah-wah pedal, to a fuzztone in the early days.
Smith: That's probably all you had. What were your first effects?
Lifeson: My first effect was the Fuzz Face Fuzztone. I remember, I used to plug my guitar into the back of my parents' TV. [Smith laughs] It had a little RCA input. I don't know why that input was there.
Smith: Was it distorted?
Lifeson: Oh, yeah, it was distorted before I even put the Fuzzface in. [Smith laughs] Then I got a wah-wah pedal, a CryBaby wah-wah pedal.
Smith: Jimi Hendrix had one of those. Gotta have it. Page…
Lifeson: Yeah, all those guys. Clapton when he was in Cream – White Room. I mean, there was lots of wah-wah. The Echoplex was the big one, and then the chorus pedal changed everything in my sound. I came to really rely on that from the mid-'70s on.
Smith: Chorus pedal?
Lifeson: Yeah, it just makes things bigger, especially in a three-piece. It makes it wider.
Lifeson: It can be a crutch. [Smith laughs] It can be. Delays can definitely be more of a crutch, because it masks insecurities and inaccuracies. Playing in this band with Neil and Ged, they're so active. You need to do something that kind of fills... it's the glue.
Smith: It's the situation. Certainly early on, before Geddy got into the Taurus pedals and keyboards, you were... that was it, as far as real melody. That was your job. You had a big job, a big thing to do.
Lifeson: Yeah, in a very busy space.
Smith: Where's... let me ask you this, and go back to the Hall of Fame for a second… Will anyone from the Rutsey family be involved?
Lifeson: I don't know, personally. Yeah, John passed away a couple of years ago. We hadn't really seen much of each other. When he left the band, he really left music. He sold his drums a few months later.
Smith: Look what you did to him. You ruined him.
Lifeson: He became a body builder.
Smith: He became a body builder? [Laughs] Really?
Lifeson: Yeah, he competed provincially in Ontario.
Lifeson: John was a complex kind of guy. He was so funny – he was wonderful to be with – but would get into these moods where he hated you for some reason all of a sudden, and would have nothing to do with you.
Smith: Kind of no reason?
Lifeson: Yeah. For a couple of months.
Smith: A couple of months?
Lifeson: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Smith: How are you going to be in a band with a guy like that?
Lifeson: I know, it was difficult. Suddenly, one day he would call and say, "Hey, what's going on?" – like nothing happened. He was a very moody, weird guy in that way. He had juvenile diabetes, and I think it had a big influence on his life. I remember, I met him when we were both 10 or 11 years old. We were friends from being kids. There were a lot of those little cycles where he would get like that.
Smith: You think maybe it was from the diabetes?
Lifeson: He was very self-conscious about the diabetes. He worried about touring, going away, how would he store his insulin and those sort of things. He didn't want people to know. It was a complex thing with him. I think when it came down to it, he had a very rough year before we got our American deal in 1974 and went on tour. That year, he was very sick. He had issues with his diabetes and other physical issues.
Smith: He kind of had enough.
Lifeson: In fact, we had another drummer – Jerry Fielding was his name. He sat in and learned the stuff, and played for a couple months with us while John was recuperating.
Smith: I didn't know that.
Lifeson: Then it went back and forth a few times. He was one of the candidates to join the band, when John left. He was a great drummer, and a really nice guy. But Neil was just something else.
I'd see John every once in a while, when we would come home, not very often. I didn't see him probably from 1976, I guess, until mid- to late '80s. And then we got together, and I started working out with him, training with him. We socialized a little bit. It was kind of nice. We actually went on a holiday together. Then I didn't see him or hear from him until four or five years ago, I guess. It was long, from '88 to 2008. Suddenly, I remember he called and asked me about something that he was – some charity thing that he asked if we would get involved with. The next thing I knew, he passed away, which is sadly not uncommon for people with juvenile diabetes.
Smith: It's bad when you get it as a juvenile, I think.
Lifeson: Yeah, and he was in his mid- to late 50s by then. It's tough. I don't know if there's anybody from his family that reached out to the office.
Smith: So you haven't been in contact with them.
Lifeson: No, not really.
Smith: I get it, I get it, I get it.
Lifeson: Forty years, that's a long time. There's no denying that he was an important part of the beginning of what our roots were, but we were a very different band not long after he left, really. It's kind of the way things go, I guess.
Smith: I remember they would ask, "Who do you want to be there?" Because we have quite a few members as well. They were asking us, "Who do you want to be included?" Usually, it's founding members. They gave us the usual parameter stuff, and it was up to us. Actually, I was talking to Sammy not too long ago – Andy Johns passed away last week, did you see that?
Smith: He did our first Chickenfoot record.
Lifeson: Yeah, that's right.
Smith: We knew Andy, and he did a Van Halen record, he did one of Joe's records. We were just talking on the phone about that. He said, "Yeah, Denny Carmassi, who was the drummer in Montrose, I've been doing stuff with Denny and Bill Church in the studio, recording." I said, "That's great. How does it sound?" "Cool, man. We've got the old Montrose thing going." I'm like, "You're kidding me." He's like, "Denny's really upset, because Denny was in Heart in the '80s.
Smith: [Laughs] He wasn't invited to be involved in the whole thing, and he was really bummed.
Lifeson: Yeah, well, you know…
Smith: But you guys are like... that's a no-brainer.
Lifeson: Yeah, I think if John was still around, I think an invitation would have gone to him, for sure. He's not, and it's nothing really to do with his family or anything. We did have another guitar player in the band.
Lifeson: Yeah, Mitch Bossi.
Smith: Mitch Bossi?
Lifeson: Yeah, he was in the band for …
Smith: The Mitch Bossi?
Lifeson: [Laughs] Yes – the teacher. He was in the band for, I don't know... I think it was three or four months. We were playing clubs and high school dances and stuff like that.
Smith: Was this in your movie? I don't remember that.
Lifeson: I think. Yeah, Mitch was mentioned in it. There were some photos with the four of us. He was a friend of John's. Mitch was not that great of a guitar player.
Smith: You're being nice.
Lifeson: He was OK, but not that great.
Smith: He could play.
Lifeson: He could play.
Lifeson: John really wanted to go to more of a Bad Company kind of, Small Faces, er, Faces sort of thing. That's the kind of music that he was really into.
Lifeson: Yeah, the English bluesy kind of thing.
Smith: He had more of that vibe?
Lifeson: We went for a while, for a few months. I remember we were at a rehearsal, and we told Mitch that it wasn't really working out. [Smith laughs] He picked up his stuff, and he left.
Smith: Spinal Tap. Was John part of that decision as well?
Lifeson: Yeah, John actually made that decision. I remember him saying, "This isn't working out. I'll talk to Mitch." It was at a rehearsal. We were all there. I guess John did the talking.
Smith: In a band... How do I say this? When you have to fire somebody …
Lifeson: It's hard. We're terrible at it.
Smith: It's the worst! So are we. We're the worst, and we've had to let some people go, and it's…
Lifeson: I know.
Smith: It's a horrible… When John, our guitar player, left, we got another guy to play just a tour, the Lollapalooza tour. We did another one in the fall. Arik Marshall, he was a really good player. But we'd never written, and we tried to write songs with him, because John quit in the middle of a tour.
Lifeson: Yeah, learn the stuff.
Smith: Right. He played great. He was a really good player, but we'd never tried to write. We were jamming and improvising, and that's kind of how we write our songs. He tried that, and it just wasn't happening. You're like, "Oh, no…. " We had to fire him. It was really rough.
Lifeson: I know.
Smith: We did this whole thing, auditioning guitar players is a nightmare. We put an ad in the LA Weekly. This was 1993, or something like that, and we had every crazy person come down and audition for the band. That didn't really work out. We saw this one guy playing in this band called Mother Tongue. His name was Jesse Tobias. We'd been so frustrated by the audition process; we saw him play and we thought, "Wow, he sounds good. His band sounds good." "Want to jam with us?" "Yeah, OK." We had one jam – an hour, hour and a half – good, funky, he played everything cool. We were so excited by this. We thought,
"Wow, the guy's kind of got his own thing."
Lifeson: "'This is going to work!'"
Smith: Yeah, exactly. We were so frustrated. "You're in!" Ahhhh… He quits his band. We start jamming… two, three days …
Lifeson: You realized?
Smith: Yeah. It was premature. At the time, we'd asked Dave Navarro to be in our group and he said no. Then he was like, "You know? Yeah, all right." We'd always kind of wanted him to be in the group to begin with.
Lifeson: Yeah, Dave's pretty …
Smith: Dave's a good player, right? It made sense, we know him, and Jane's Addiction. Dave says, "Yes, I think I'm ready to do it." And we had to fire Jesse…. Ohhh! The picture was already in Rolling Stone, [laughs] the new guitar player – aarrrgghhh! That was really bad. It's a hard…
Lifeson: Yeah, it's really hard.
Smith: It's hard… What's the longest... it was probably during when Neil took time off, that was probably your longest inactivity for the group, right?
Lifeson: Yeah, that was from... we'd come off that tour, I think in June of '97, the Test For Echo tour. The accident happened in August, and then his wife Jackie passed away in June of '98, and then he went on his odyssey. It wasn't until... was it 2011? Yeah, it was 2011, because we started in January of that year.
Lifeson: I'm sorry – 2001. We didn't finish until fall of 2012, and I remember we were in the studio when 9/11 happened. We had some friends that were visiting from the States – actually, one friend from here in Los Angeles and another from Boston. They were stranded in Toronto. It was really interesting, because right in front of our offices, from 3:30 to 6:30, there's no parking. At 3:31, the tow trucks come and pull the cars away that are parked there. This one friend of ours, from Boston, his car was parked out front, right in front of our office. He had Massachusetts plates on the car. They didn't touch his car. Everybody was so freaked out about what had happened, and so supportive.
Yeah, that was a tough album, that one. After everything that he'd been through, it was so delicate and fragile. Honestly, he hadn't played in a few years. Once he'd played, in three years, and he barely got through that playing session. He talks about it, and how he broke down when he was playing, and really never wanted to play again, and didn't think he could. When we came back into the studio… he just was not anywhere close to being the same drummer that he was. He couldn't play.
Smith: That's the thing – you don't do it, you use it or lose it, right? Especially the way he performed.
Lifeson: You hit the drums hard. [Laughs] In different scenarios, at the club at the Orbit Room, when you played with the A Team that time.
Smith: Oh, that's right! I forgot about that.
Lifeson: It was so exciting. The tonality out of that kit – you just know what you're doing. You know the kind of pressure that's required to make the drums speak. When we were in the studio, oh, my God, he was hitting the drums at 65 percent of what he used to. I'm a pretty strong guy, and I'd go in there and mess around on his drums. I hit them as hard as I could, and it was nowhere near what he was doing in just his regular playing. I know a lot of it is technique, and how to snap your wrist or whatever it is. It was a long, arduous climb for him to get back together, to his playing speed. He did get back to it. It was a very difficult time.
Smith: He's such a perfectionist, you know? I'm sure he was just like... it must have been frustrating, to not be able to do your thing.
Lifeson: I think it was, but at the same time, I think he recognized that he'd gone through a terrible, difficult period where he just didn't play. He didn't exercise his…
Smith: Yeah, he wasn't like, "I just lost it for no reason. No, I know why."
Lifeson: There was a good reason why he couldn't do it. I think he realized that, and it was a long, hard climb to get back up. Some days, I think he was discouraged by it. Other days, he was more focused on it. Getting married, and Carrie coming into his life was really, really, really important. Carrie came up when we were there. She did that beautiful book of his hands – she's a photographer. She spent time with him, and it was therapeutic, I think, for her to be involved, and to shoot him while he's playing, and all of that stuff.
It was a very powerful remedy, I think, for him. It was important. She was there every few weeks. She would come back up and spend time with him, and be together and support him. She was the instigator in getting him back to work. She didn't know anything about the band when they met, and they got married. She basically said to him, "I don't really know a lot about the band, but what I do know is that you do what you do, and you're pretty good at what you do, from my understanding. You've got to do something with your life. Why not do the thing that you were really good at doing?"
Smith: [Laughs] That's very innocent, though, right?
Lifeson: It is very innocent. That doesn't account for all the turmoil that you're feeling, and this horrific experience that he went through. How do you eliminate, or at least dilute that emotional horror show? She was willing to support him, and lift him up. We were there all along for him.
Smith: I'm sure you guys were. That's amazing.