Alex Lifeson Returns to the Limelight

When American Songwriter talked to Alex Lifeson, he took the call in the middle of a hard day at work in his home studio, evidence of his busy schedule. His new band, Envy of None, released its exciting self-titled debut album in early 2022. Lifeson’s guitar expertise has recently been put to good use creating a pair of signature models in conjunction with Gibson. He even played live recently with his old Rush buddy Geddy Lee, sparking fans’ hopes of new music from the pair.

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In other words, he is dealing with the uptown problem of having too much to do right now. “I’m working so much right now with the Envy of None stuff and I must have six or seven other asks from other people and it’s kept me super busy,” Lifeson tells American Songwriter. “I’m in a great spot.”

That’s as close as you’ll get to a boast from Lifeson. For a guy who has every right to be cocky as a member of a band that has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million albums, he comes off as exceedingly humble, a man genuinely grateful for his part in music history. That gratitude extends to the unlikely formation of Envy of None, which allows him to focus on the here and now instead of simply basking in past accolades.

[RELATED: Rush’s Alex Lifeson Starts New Band, Releases Debut Single]

“It’s not Rush,” Lifeson says as a way of explaining Envy of None. “The whole Rush experience was very different. And that’s why I really liked this. This was fresh and new for me.”

Expanding Envy

When Rush stopped touring in 2015 due to drummer Neil Peart’s health problems (he passed away in 2020), Lifeson kept his antennae up for something new. The novel opportunity arrived via tracks sent to him by bassist Andy Curran, a member of the ’80s band Coney Hatch and afterward an A&R man who dealt directly with Rush. The process ramped up when Curran met singer-songwriter Maiah Wynne, who started adding vocals to the tracks. Loving what he heard, Lifeson went back in and reworked his parts while second guitarist Alfio Annibalini joined to make it a quartet.

The self-titled debut album from Envy of None is a spicy mix, with Wynne’s ethereal confessionals fitting into sometimes foreboding yet consistently groove-worthy rhythmic structures. If you occasionally have a hard time locating Lifeson’s guitar in the stew, that’s OK with him. “There wasn’t a heavy emphasis on typical arrangements that Rush would do,” he muses. “It was relaxing and much broader an experience for me personally. I got to listen to what other people were doing in this context, including another guitar player with Alf. I really liked all of his parts and didn’t want to redo them. That’s what he brought to the whole mix. 

Alex Lifeson (Photo by Richard Sibbald)

“It freed me up knowing there was another guitar player covering some of the melodic issues that I would normally have to. I was completely open to experimenting and trying to make the guitar sound less like a traditional guitar, and more like a rhythmic and sonic element that was within the context of these songs. They were for me very much driven by Maiah’s vocal.”

The finished product displays clear chemistry among the players, no small feat since they mostly worked from a distance. “We spent probably a year working together remotely,” Lifeson explains. “We never were in a room together. We just shared files. It was a bit of a pyramid. We would build the tracks up until we felt that it reached its pinnacle and then we moved on. It was a great experience. I loved the feel of the record. I loved making a record that is so much about the rhythmic aspect of it, that’s trippy in a very visual sense.”

Lifeson composed the elegiac instrumental “Western Sunset” to close out the album, with his bandmates ceding him the spotlight to express his heartfelt emotions. “I started writing ‘Western Sunset’ when I first heard about Neil’s illness,” he says. “That hung around for quite a few years. I didn’t know where it was going to go or anything like that. It was just something that I wanted to do at the time. Envy of None was completely open to it. I think that everybody really respected where that song was coming from. It was an homage to Neil [Peart] from me personally. And it was a very personal thing.”

He jumped at the chance to be in an ensemble again. “I much prefer being part of the mix and part of a team than have to do something that’s expected of me,” Lifeson says. “I don’t want to be that person. What I loved about this project is it really made me think about how I want to play guitar in it. Even in my advancing years, I can still work my way around a fretboard. But this was in service of the song and there were so many great elements. Working with Alf was great, a guitar player from a different era. Working with Andy, whom I’ve known for decades, but he’s sort of from a different musical background as well. And then Maiah, being young and having this incredible voice that I really connected to. We really had a very close relationship working together, developing what we heard.”

50 Years of Rush

While Lifeson helps Envy of None develop into a potent artistic force, he can’t help but look back and marvel at the accomplishments of his former band. Rush’s first single came out in 1973, making this their golden anniversary of sorts. But the band as we know it truly originated when the two started auditioning drummers to replace John Rutsey, who played on their first album, and in walked perhaps the unlikeliest candidate of all.

“When he arrived, he was this big, tall gangly guy with very short hair,” Lifeson laughs about his first meeting with Peart. “Looked very nerdy. He pulled out his drums, it was this very small Rogers kit, the toms were really small, and the kick was small. I had shoulder-length hair and velvet pants. We had nail polish on our fingernails. We thought we were just so cool. How could this nerdy guy possibly fit in our band?

“Neil set his drums up and started playing. We started jamming and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is amazing.’ He arrived in late morning and we were there till 11 at night. We spent the whole day jamming and talking and laughing until he left. In our minds, this was the guy. He was amazing right from the get-go.”

[RELATED: The Meaning Behind the Band Name: Rush]

The arrival of Peart proved serendipitous, as his adventurous lyric-writing dovetailed with what Lee and Lifeson wanted to do with the band’s music. “We were coming out of that Zeppelin-esque slant that Rush had in those earlier years,” Lifeson says. “Neil was just so aligned to the way were thinking we wanted to go. It seemed natural. His lyrics really reflected that decision and movement in a particular vein. They weren’t songs about partying and getting laid, all the typical stuff that a lot of rock bands were writing at the time.

“These were more thoughtful observations of the human condition and things around all of us all the time. It seemed to Geddy and me how interesting that approach was, how non-typical it was. As Neal progressed as a writer, his lyrics became more and more introspective and more succinct. He could really get a thought across.”

As for the band’s longevity, Lifeson believes it helped that Rush heeded the trends around them, but never overindulged in them. “We were confident to some degree, and lacking in confidence also, like searching,” he says of their artistic temperament. “And I think that’s what you need. You need to be hungry and think of ideas. I remember so many of those bands in the ’80s, the big-hair bands, we became friends with some of those guys. And they were shocked at how quickly they became irrelevant. It was almost overnight. The big-hair bands disappeared, and a whole genre of music was gone overnight when grunge came along.

“We kind of embraced everything as we went along, but we were very aware of who we were and how we worked and what we brought. We felt very independent as well. We were always going to do what we wanted to do. If we could play the music that we did during the ’70s and punk and still live through it, we definitely had something. But we were always open to embracing new ideas and directions if we thought we could elevate them somehow. I think all along we always felt that we could do that.”

The Rush faithful will thrill at the fact that Lifeson doesn’t rule out new music with Lee. “When we did these gigs together for the Taylor Hawkins memorials, we got a real charge out of playing together,” he says. “It was the first time in seven years that we played together. We’ll see. I’m sure we’ll do something musical together. But we don’t seem to have any urgency and we’re not putting any pressure on each other to do anything. And yet the interest is there. We keep hearing from Rush fans who can’t wait for us to do something new, something next.”

Regardless of when that happens, Lifeson cherishes his bond with Lee and his Rush memories. “One of the proudest things I feel from that whole relationship is the fact that for 41 years we toured against all odds,” he says. “When we released the first record when Neil joined the band in 1974, we thought if we could just hold on for five years, that would be an amazing run. We’d already been playing together six years playing high schools and bars and all of that stuff. To do another five years, and have 10 or 11 years as your touring, guitar-playing history would be an awesome thing. 

“No one ever thought it would last 40 years. We went through lots of ups and downs. Life came in a lot of different forms. Death came as well. It was an amazing period. For the three of us, it was our lives, from just slightly out of our teenage years right through old age. We’re best friends forever. It’s just such an amazing relationship to me to have played in a band with this guy since we were 13 years old. We lived the dream. To do all this stuff, and it’s not over. We’re almost 70. That’s crazy to me. It’s really, really remarkable. I don’t know how we managed to pull the winning straws out of this hat.”

Courtesy Gibson

Alex Lifeson Epiphone Les Paul Standard Axcess

For his second collaboration with Gibson, Alex Lifeson took the framework of his earlier Les Paul Axcess model and brought it to the Epiphone brand. “When I started working on the original Gibson Axcess model, which was a decade ago, it took a couple of years to develop it the way I wanted it because I had a lot of things on it that were not that common,” Lifeson remembers. “So we had great success with that.

“Then Gibson wanted to do a more economical version of it with the Epiphone. So basically, they copied what we’d done with the Gibson model and provided it on a different platform. I thought it was great from the get-go. It was really well-made and sounded great.”

The guitarist is also pleased that the affordability of the Alex Lifeson Epiphone Les Paul Standard Axcess should help it land with younger players. “I think younger kids, for example, are more likely to get their parents to be able to afford a guitar under $1,000 than one that’s a few to $5,000,” he says. “That makes a lot of sense. My concern was the quality. And I think they’ve done a great job in providing that kind of quality in a much less expensive platform.”

Photos by Richard Sibbald

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