Alex Lifeson (Rush) has teamed up with bassist Andy Curran of Canadian rockers Coney Hatch, producer Alfio Annibalini (Voivod/Sons of Otis) and singer Maiah Wynne to form Envy of None, his first post-Rush album project. We spoke to Alex and Andy about the project’s self-titled debut album, the relevance of the music to the situation in Ukraine, and Alex’s poignant tribute to the great Neil Peart.
Text: Anne-Marie Forker
Photo: Richard Sibbald
The project has been developing for a few years, and you all have diverse backgrounds, so how did you come together?
Andy: It really started with Alf and I exchanging ideas back and forth. We’d known each other for quite a long time. Right after I did a project called Caramel for Geffen Records and then had a band called Leisure World after that, and Alfie was the engineer and mixer on some of those songs. The quick story is that we were in the studio one day testing out an amplifier and I said “give me that guitar and I’ll check it out” and he said “no, no I can do it” and he started playing these beautiful jazz chords. I was like “Oh my God I had no idea that you were a guitarist as well!” It was then that I discovered he was a multi-instrumentalist. We started sharing ideas back and forth with the premise of a rainy day, and maybe we could find someone young to work with, and fast forward here we are with Envy of None. Along that ride, because Alex and I are friends, and have been for quite some time, I was sharing those ideas with Alex and asking him what he thought of them and consider playing guitar on them. It wasn’t until we had met Maiah that it really solidified together and we were all taken aback by her vocals and talents, and it kick started the whole writing process.
She is a hell of a find, with such an ethereal voice. I couldn’t turn the record off and had to keep listening.
Alex: That’s a good sign [laughs]!
Andy: That’s a very good sign [laughs]!
It contains some powerful imagery, such as “Western Sunset”, which we’ll get to later, and the lyric of the flower in the gun, which I literally did as a child in Belfast. That touched deeply. Anyway, how did the name of the band come about? [Alex then collects a flag of Ukraine and places it in the background]
Andy: We were searching for a name. I said to Maiah “You’re in the middle of nowhere, and Alex in Toronto….” and she said “Let’s call it Middle of Nowhere”, I like that. So we did a name search, and there was already a bunch of bands called Middle of Nowhere. Our lawyer, David Quinton Steinberg, who actually played drums on the record, said “I have a name that I haven’t used – Envy Of None” and we loved it. It had no connotations of being a hard rock band or anything like that so we have to thank him for the name.
It’s a cool name. Alex, I read that Maiah became your “muse” – her voice and your guitar dance so well together. How did that inspiration work? Did you wait until you heard her vocals before writing the guitar parts?
Alex: I have to say Anne-Marie that you have a very, very keen sensitivity. The dance, as you call it, that Maiah and I did together, particularly on “Old Strings” – that’s exactly the way I thought of it when I was writing the guitar parts. The interesting thing with “Old Strings” is that it’s one of Maiah’s songs originally. When we received it, it was a much faster tempo – in double time as to what it is now, and had a rootsy vibe to it. Maiah and I spent a couple of days going back and forth, I had guitar, mandola, banjo. We did all this stuff to create this vibe, which she wants to use for her solo record. But in the meantime Alf and Andy dropped the song down to half time, stripped it down and reinserted all these other instruments and created a whole different vibe to it, that was slower and heartfelt. Maiah’s voice, even though it was down to half time, worked perfectly! Her previous vocal was in double time. When I got this new version, I immediately heard, I mean her lyrics to that song are very emotional and I just pictured the guitar doing this around her [swirls one hand around an arm] while she’s singing. I wasn’t sure how to approach it, but I was struck with the idea of a very simple, plaintive, guitar sound, which I did with a volume pedal and a little bit of vibrato and I just keyed off the things that she was singing about. When I sent it to her she was really moved by this dance that the two of us were doing. She then redid her vocals, sent them back. I don’t think I changed anything afters, I might have just moved a few things around. She caught on that whole same idea and this vision in my head of us dancing together in this spiral, is very much the way the song is and cinematically that’s what it creates. Through the whole song, this connection between that single guitar and her voice is really special and it’s unified in the story of what the song is. There’s all the other stuff that happens, beautiful production and sound, the chorus comes in with that beautiful bounce and it’s elevating. Her lyrics at the end “We can make it”, all of these things just make for such a great song. But it is that dance that we do together that was eye opening for me. I just felt that she understood me in a certain way and I understood her in a certain way: musical soul to soul. We’re separated by many years and it didn’t matter, we just understood each other. We spoke the same language, had the same respect and source of inspiration. It was such a cool thing for me after all my experiences with Rush and all the other things that I’ve done to find someone that I could feel like that with. Never met her. We did have dinner one night when she was here. Working together in such a way that triggered so much in me was a beautiful thing.
Andy: You guys are soulmates!
I can tell!
Alex: We are, and I would never have expected something like that to be honest with you. When you work with other people from this side of these eyeballs, it’s an understanding of your skills and your experience and how you apply them to a given project. So, when I listen to something I’m quite analytical, then I get past that stage and allow the more creative side to blend in with the analysis of what I think is required and what the musical conditions are and those sort of things. As a professional that’s where you come from. There was something about this that caught me by surprise. It seemed like with everything we did together, we were absolutely on board. We may have known each other in another life, quite honestly that may be the reason [smiles]. It was so exciting to work with somebody in that context.
Other voices and guitar dance together of course, but not in the way you two do. It’s a new experience for me.
Alex: That’s what we wanted, something new. There are influences that are apparent, for example in the production and some of the sounds but at the same time we wanted it to be something fresh. Even though there might be a traditional approach to some of the music, there’s a sense of rhythm on this record that just blows me away. Every single song is just dense with rhythm on every level: subtle, in your face, on the outside and you can’t help but move with every song you listen to. It just grabs you and moves you. In some aggressive ways and more subtle ways. You get captivated by the music on this record. A lot of it has to do with Maiah’s voice, her approach to singing and how soft and delicate and yet powerful and her lyrics are so mature. You mentioned ‘Enemy’ for example and the whole idea of a flower in a gun and by the way [puts hand on his heart] I’m very moved that you did that.
I was very young. I remember the soldier asked me to find more flowers to fill it up because one flower didn’t fit.
Andy: Wow. Wow.
Alex: Oh my God! We could do with more people like you with what’s going on in Ukraine.
Speaking of Ukraine, I was wondering what “Enemy” was written about and whether you see it in a new light now, given what is going on there.
Andy: I’ll answer the first part as I know Alex wanted to talk about Ukraine. The lyrics were on a co-writing level with Maiah and I, but it was 80 per cent me but I would seed her with little ideas. On ‘Enemy’ I delivered a bit of a demo with the line ‘I’m not your enemy’ and there was a whisper in there. She called me and asked ‘What is this about Andy’? I took it more from a personal thing, a personal relationship: I’m not your enemy, I’m actually your friend. She lives in Portland, Oregon where there had been a lot of demonstrations about peace in general and living in the US compared to Canada. She’s told us a lot about how difficult it is there with their leadership and their past President and everything. I said ‘Well if you want to look at that brute, why you look back as far as Vietnam and the hippies and the flowers in the guns’ and she loved that idea. So I seeded her along with the way with these little inspirations, whether it be ‘I Never Said I Love You’ or ‘Liar’. With ‘Liar’ she took the approach of not really liking the liar – she was at jury duty and saw this woman sitting on the stand lying through her teeth and wrote the song about that. With ‘Enemy’, I have never really written songs politically, but that was a platform for Maiah to stand out a little bit and now, fast forward, my God, it’s so timely with the whole thing in Ukraine. The song is quite appropriate and topical for that.
Alex: We could spend hours talking about Ukraine. It’s a frustrating thing to talk about because it’s so crazy. It’s insane that we’re even dealing with such a thing. It’s very difficult to not be emotional and just say “Let’s bomb the hell out of them. Who cares?! This is just so wrong.” You have to be pragmatic when you’re talking about the possible destruction of a whole planet and we have to be careful about how we approach it. World politics is a very complicated issue and world leaders are very complicated. They don’t have simple solutions for very complicated issues. The connections and arrangements and relationships countries have with each other – you just don’t know what’s going on in the background. Is America talking to China and saying “Look, we’re going to have to give up Ukraine because Putin is crazy but we’ve got to get back to selling stuff to each other again and live happily ever after”. Who knows what sort of deals are going on? Everybody has got to put on a front and a face that shows concern. Some of these threats seem so hollow to me. “You have our prayers” – what does that mean? You have our prayers but stuff keeps happening. That’s the big one in America – “thoughts and prayers” every time someone gets blown to pieces by a gun in America, which happens every single day. It’s the same old thing, “thoughts and prayers” – it doesn’t amount to anything.
Exactly. Do you think of Ukraine now when you hear the song?
Alex: I do. It’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s probably my second favourite, and all the others are my first favourite, or the other way around. [Andy and Anne-Marie laugh in the background]. There’s something about the construction of that song and the amount of pure emotion that went into it from the writers. Alf mixed that song, and there is a moment in the beginning, at the end of that intro where’s there is no music but there’s a [raises hand and makes a breathy exhalation] in the mix underneath. I’m getting goosebumps just even thinking about it, because it feels like pure menace when that sound moves like a dark cloud moving across a surface, a feeling of something dangerous and deadly coming. The way Maiah delivers the lyrics and the intensity of the music, for a song that’s supposed to be about that sort of thing, it works really well. We’re planning on releasing “Enemy” as a single for sale, a limited series to help with humanitarian aid. That should be coming out very soon, in a day or two.
Andy: We’ve got a couple of calls to make for the last details, but it’s to do whatever part we can, Anne-Marie. We never planned it that way but fast forward and you’re right, the lyrics are so spot on with what’s happening right now and it’s certainly an anti-war song.
“Liar” reminds me of Russian politics also.
Andy: [Laughs] Yeah, we could use that too!
Alex: [Laughs] Hey! We have a protest record! What do you know!
The industrial bass groove at the beginning of “Liar”, did you come up with that first, Andy, and then write around it?
Andy: There’s a friend of mine called Dave Ogilvie, who was in a band called Skinny Puppy out in Vancouver but he’s also a very gifted mixer, engineer and he had a side project called Jackalope. This is way back. He called me and asked if I had any songs lying around and I had this little riff called “Fuzzmatron” which turned into “Liar”. It’s just that fuzz bass with that industrial groove. I sent it to him and he said “Oh my God I love this Andy, it’s perfect but our lead vocalist just quit the band so I don’t have a band anymore”, so I just stuffed it away. Alf kept saying to me that we had to do something with it. I ended up writing some lyrics based around “Liar” and gave it to Maiah, and like with every single song we worked on, she ran with it. She was doing jury duty, as I said earlier, and ended up crafting it around that and her experience of this woman who she said had cold, marbley, dark eyes. We found out many months later that it was about that jury duty that she was really affected by.
Which part of the album are you most proud of, Andy, and why?
Andy: I think selfishly as a bass player I got to really stretch on this record and everybody let me do what the hell I wanted to do, which is not usually the case! I really have a strong passion for “Look Inside”. We call it the “stoner lullaby”. It’s got this trippy, moody bass part and it’s doubled. There were so many times that I doubled my bass on this and nobody said anything. Alf called me a cave man and said “What are you doing?” I had fuzz bass doubled left and right and a lot of times sonically that will eat up a lot of space, and then Alex had the difficult task of having to write around those. “Look Inside” is a big favourite. I just love the vibe of it, and what Maiah did and that dance between the guitar and the vocals is all over it. Alex’s guitar sound is literally swirling around her that whole song. It’s awesome. I love that one.
Speaking of “Look Inside”, the start of that song sounds like a keyboard, but it’s a guitar?
Andy: You’ve got a good ear, Anne-Marie [smiles]!
Alex: You’re the first one to pick up on that! That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to approach my guitar parts as non-guitar parts. I wanted to manipulate them in whatever way I could to make them non-guitar like but also non-keyboard like, so they had a character that was difficult to place. That’s a great example because when I first got that song I just thought that the way it sounded in the beginning with the bass entry, it needed a lead in, something that would give it a bit more of a platform. Working on the guitar, I wondered what could I do. I came up with a part but it just sounded so normal and then I started messing with some effects and it created this kind of chigga-chigga-chigga kind of sound, and it was swirling, and it just created this cool bed for this enormous distorted stereo bass to plop down on and then the song built on that.
Fascinating. I’ve been wondering how you did that. Did you record analogue?
Alex: Yes, as you can see, this is all my analogue gear here [gestures to his left], compressors, pre-amps, all my amps, and then I work on Logic so it’s all digital from this point. The front end at least is analogue. What a great question, Jeez!
Andy: I have visions of Alex working on his guitar parts with a white lab coat because some of the stuff he came up with, I would call him and say “How did you get that sound?!” He said “I’ll tell you exactly what I did, I did this and this and flipped it….”. He had a lot of fun soundscaping things on the record.
Was there anything about working with Envy Of None that was different to working with Coney Hatch and Rush?
Andy: For me there were two things that were quite rewarding. The fact that everybody parked their egos aside. We were given our own turf to produce our own parts. We didn’t have a producer. Essentially I produced my own parts then sent them off, hoping that everybody liked them. We were given so much freedom and flexibility to do that and that’s not often the case. You sometimes have someone leaning over you and saying “Why don’t you try this note on there. That sounds pretty good but do this….”. I had a journey on my own and it never left my house until I was happy. I loved that part of it. I also enjoyed the freedom of drifting through different styles. There’s a lot of different styles on this record, and it was unspoken. No one ever called me and said “What the hell are you doing sending me this riff for ‘Dumb’?! It sounds like a 80s Euro disco thing!” Everybody just rolled up their sleeves and went for it. For me that was quite a departure from Coney Hatch. I’m sorry I have to duck out early but you’re in very capable hands with Mr Lifeson. A little shout out to my wife’s relatives in Selbu and Trondheim! I’ve spent a little bit of time in Norway and absolutely loved it there.
I hope we’ll see you here again sometime! Nice to meet you.
Andy: [Waving] Bye guys!
Alex: I would agree with what Andy just said and would add that for me, and for all of us, I don’t really think of this as a band project. This is not a new band that we put together. We’ve never been in a studio working together other than some vocal things that Maiah did in 2019 when she first met Andy but otherwise everything else has been sharing files. As Andy said we had our own space to work in without any distractions and we would just share our updated files with everyone. This is really a project of four songwriters getting together and throwing in our ideas and letting it build. With Rush it was very creative but it had a different vibe. There were very strong players and strong writers in that band. Geddy and Neil were very active as a rhythm section so I had to readjust the way I looked at things as a guitarist and be more of a rhythm guitarist or provide more of a bed for their activity. That worked great and I love that. For me working in this particular situation was liberating. It was great to be able to just listen to the song and figure out how I could make the song better. It’s already got great stuff on it, and lots of guitar that I like on it already, but what can I do that’s different, that’s going to be to service the song and make the song better. That was a challenge for me that I relished every minute that I worked on this record. We’re talking of continuing. We’ve thrown some ideas around.
Alex: We just want to get this record out before we start jumping in to other things, but we like working together, and seem to work well together. Like Andy said there were no egos involved, this was all about making great music. We feel like we’ve accomplished that, at least we hope so. It’s always difficult when you’re so close to something to be absolutely objective but if I don’t listen to it for a while, and then I listen to it, I can get a clearer idea and be a little more objective. To me it sounds like we’ve created an interesting, very rhythmic album of terrific sounds and presence. The vocals and Maiah’s lyrical content have created something that’s very compelling.
Have you created new material together?
Alex: I’m looking at the folder right here [gestures to his front left] with about a dozen ideas. It’s been busy though, all of us are doing lots of press and Maiah is shooting a movie in Montana. She would like to do a solo record that she’s had on hold for quite some time. “Old Strings” – she’ll have a version of that on her record and she’s asked me to play guitar on it as well. I have a few things that I’m doing that I got from other people, adding guitar parts to songs. Some are a little more open than others but it just keeps me active and going, and that’s the best [laughs].
The last track, “Western Sunset”, a tribute to the legendary Neil Peart – what was it about the imagery of a sunset that you chose it for the title?
Alex: As a photographer you clued in on it. I wrote that song around the same time as “Kabul Blues” and “Spy House”. We had just found out about Neil’s illness and we all spent time with him. There were numerous times that this happened, but the first time I visited him we were sitting on his balcony. He has a little balcony off his office on the second floor. We were sitting outside and the sunset was filtering through the trees and the Malibu hills were in the background. He lived in Santa Monica, California. The moment just really had an impact on me. The sunset being the end of the day, the closure and what that represents. The serenity and peacefulness of being there with him at that moment, and all the natural things around us, the sound of the wind and the trees, the birds, all of these things just combined to make this a very special moment that really impacted me. As I started to develop that song I wanted to maintain that sense of peace and serenity as the sunset progresses to darkness. I didn’t want to make it a maudlin thing or a big tribute, I just wanted to make a piece of music that was reflective of the moment of being with your friend for perhaps the last time you’re with them. As a song on the album it also occupies a good place. It’s the last song after 45 minutes of pretty intense music. It gives you a chance to catch your breath and just sit back and process everything in this calm and serene environment.
The acoustic guitar is so warm and rich on that track. Do you think you’ll play live with this project at some point?
Alex: Honestly, we really don’t know. We just want to wait until the record is out and see where it goes. If there is a great demand then we would attack it. I toured a lot and I’m not interested in touring any more. I don’t mind the idea of playing but it’s all the other stuff that I’m done with. The same goes for Andy. He’s a little bit younger but he also has a long history of touring. I would love to see this show. I’d love to hear this material in a small theatre with an amazing light show, it would be so brilliant. It would be really stunning as a live production. Ideally we would set something up, work in a band to tour with Maiah and they would tour and in the meantime, we would play a few shows here and there as part of it. We’ll see about that.
Personally I hope it happens. Thanks for today and I hope our paths cross again.
Alex: I hope so too, Anne-Marie, honestly it’s been a fantastic interview, you ask great questions. I can’t stop thinking about you putting the flower in the gun. I’m on the verge of tears, that’s so beautiful. You’re a beautiful soul for doing that.
Thank you. What’s more beautiful was the soldier’s response, to just be playful and ask me to get more flowers to fill it up. He was just a kid too, probably 18 years old, just doing a job. It’s the powers above that are the issue.
Alex: It’s all kids. It’s heart-breaking.
I know. I’m glad there is music like yours in the world.
Alex: Thank you so much.
Originally published in Norway Rock Magazine #2/2022