Lifeson: Vapor Trails is an important record – our return after a horrible nightmare
Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson has explained why the band’s 2002 album Vapor Trails is being reissued in a remixed form – and why, 11 years on, drummer Neil Peart still can’t bear to listen to the record.
Words: Paul Eliott
Vapor Trails was always a problematic album for Rush. It marked a comeback for the band, and for Peart in particular. It was the first album they had made together since the double tragedy that Peart suffered in the late 90s – his 19-year-old daughter Selena killed in a car crash, and his wife Jacqueline succumbing to cancer.
In the aftermath, Peart told Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee that he was retired. He didn’t play drums for three years. But when he agreed to rejoin the band, they spent 15 months working on Vapor Trails, and the result was an album described by Lifeson as “filled with raw emotion”. In his lyrics, Peart wrote about the pain he had experienced. And the music had a similarly heavy vibe. “We wanted it to be hard-hitting,” Geddy Lee said.
But over time, both Lee and Lifeson have felt that Vapor Trails didn’t sound right. “It really bothered us that it didn’t sound like it did when we were making it,” Lifeson says. “Now we’ve remixed it, it’s the way it should always have been. But Neil still won’t listen to the record.”
What do you remember most about the making of Vapor Trails back in 2002?
Alex Lifeson: We invested so much of our hearts into that record. It was hard work for the 15 months we worked on it, and there were times when we didn’t think we’d get through it. There were moments when we hated it. We threw out a bunch of songs and we re-wrote one song, Earthshine, three times.
So the whole process was a struggle?
There was no other record that was rebounding off such a difficult period. Just getting to the point of agreeing to do the album was monumental. The first days in the studio, it was January and grey, a cold Canadian winter, and it just didn’t bode well. It was uncomfortable and difficult to get into a groove and a rhythm.
You say that the sound of the finished album ‘bothered’ you and Geddy. What exactly was wrong?
The original mastering was the problem. It was poorly done. At the time we should have remastered. It bothered us forever – particularly Geddy, who had the task of remastering of the original album and feels responsible for it. It irked him for many years. The original version is hard on your ears, because the mastering was pushed so hard, there’s distortion and so much compression – I found it very difficult to listen to it.
But why go back and remix it – why rewrite history?
There was so much invested in that record and it just didn’t sit with us that we had this blemish on our recording history. We wanted to rectify that. I’d like to remix every record we did – maybe update some parts. But that’s crazy, you know? You don’t do that – records are moments in time, markers of these different periods of progression and growth. But this one was a very important record – our return after a horrible nightmare. And it deserved better.
Given the circumstances, is Vapor Trails one of the most important albums Rush have ever made?
I think it is. It deserves a very special place in our repertoire.
Who has remixed it?
David Bottrell. He produced Tool for a lot of years and I loved that stuff. There was talk about him producing Vapor Trails in 2002, but everything was so fragile at the time that it didn’t work out. But we stayed in touch. He’s a Toronto boy. In fact he lives not too far from where I am.
When was the remixing done?
We started in May of this year, when we were touring in Europe. We did all our approvals long distance. We had a few people remix a couple of songs and they were all really good, but there was something about David’s that really felt right to us. He found things in the tracks. David’s was the most interesting approach to remixing it, and the more he got into it, the more he got a sense of overall unity. To me it sounds so good. It’s blossomed. It’s a really great Rush record – some great playing and great ideas. And now that it all knits together in a much more complete way, it feels right.
In layman’s terms, how does the remixed version sound different?
It’s much more pleasurable to listen to. Now, everything’s open, you can hear everything, and everything has its place. It’s so well-balanced. There’s a sort of creaminess and a smoothness to the sound of it. It’s so much more dynamic. Before, everything was just balls to the wall. Now it breathes.
But the remix hasn’t made it any easier for Neil to listen to the album…
I don’t think it makes any difference to him at all. He wasn’t involved in the remixing. He basically said, “I tried but I can’t do it.” It just churned up so many memories for him when he listened to the first remixes. He said, “I trust you guys to do it, but I can’t be a part of it.” And we totally understand that, of course. It was what we expected.
Does this new version of Vapor Trails feel like closure on a difficult part of the band’s history?
I don’t know. That’s a question for Neil. But I think he’s doing well. He’s happy in his life. What he feels deep down, he doesn’t really share. You can only speculate how he is.
And what next for Rush?
There’s a live DVD from the Clockwork Angels tour. It’s coming out just after Vapor Trails. We’re all still waiting to see the final cut for approval. Apart from that we don’t have much planned.
Have you discussed when you will tour again?
No. There are no definitive discussions about it at this point. Right now it’s only been a month since we got home and we really need three or four months to get it out of our system and then see what we feel like doing. But I think we’re looking at spring of 2015 as the probable time to get back going again.
And the next Rush album?
I don’t know. But Ged’s been collecting bass guitars like a madman. He’s covered the walls with all these vintage basses. He’s playing them, and he’s not one for playing when we’re not touring. So I’m wondering if maybe he and I will sit down in the new year and do something. I’m just speculating. I’m not saying there are any plans for writing or anything like that. But if he’s goofing around with his basses, that’s a good sign for me.
* Rush will release the remixed version of Vapor Trails on September 30. A seven-disc box set, The Studio Albums 1989-2007, will appear on the same day.