'A Farewell to Kings' at 45: Crown Lands Talk the Influence of Rush's Sonic Scale-Up

Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau discuss recording "live off the court," meeting their heroes and the magic of "Xanadu"
'A Farewell to Kings' at 45: Crown Lands Talk the Influence of Rush's Sonic Scale-Up
Like any students worth their salt in the school of rock, Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau of Ontario duo Crown Lands have studied the liner notes of albums like Rush's A Farewell to Kings to absorb all the pertinent musical details of their favourite trio. It's where Comeau points to define the musical expansion Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart underwent on Rush's fifth studio LP, which turns 45 on September 1.

"On 2112, it's 'Alex, guitar; [Lee], bass and vocals; Neil, drums.' And now, it's like, 'six- and 12-string electric guitars, six- and 12-string acoustic guitars, classical guitar, bass pedal synthesizer,'" he explains. "Reading them was like, 'Ooh, I want to play all of these things' — and now we do."

Looking to keep up momentum following the success of 1976's 2112, Rush decamped to Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales in the summer of 1977 to record what would become A Farewell to Kings with producer Terry Brown. Their three weeks spent at the residential recording space — which by this point had also hosted Queen, Judas Priest, Hawkwind and a nascent Motörhead — marked the first time the trio cut an album outside of their Toronto home base.

The expanse of the Welsh countryside was a perfect fit for Rush's expanding musical horizons. Peart's drum kit would start its steady growth with the inclusion of tubular bells, glockenspiel, and "various little percussion devices here and there," as he detailed in a late '70s tourbook. Lee and Lifeson picked up double-neck guitar and bass, respectively, while also moving their feet to trigger the aforementioned Moog Taurus bass pedals. A Farewell to Kings gave synthesizers greater prominence in Rush's music, priming them for their keyboard-centric compositions of the coming decade.

As Crown Lands, both Bowles and Comeau wear the influence of the Canadian power trio well, which has led to career moments that would make them the envy of any Rush-obsessed rocker: working with the band's producers, playing their instruments and even jamming with Alex Lifeson.

Knowing this, it was surprising to learn that the duo missed Primus's recent Toronto tour stop at which they covered A Farewell to Kings in its entirety while Lee and Lifeson sat sidestage. After getting the all-clear from their publicist, Bowles and Comeau revealed that they were away to play a private Formula 1 party for the prince of Bahrain. "Being a touring musician in Canada, it's usually a safe bet that we are the poorest people in the room," Comeau quips. "But, being a touring musician in Bahrain, you know you're the poorest people in the country."

To mark the 45th anniversary of A Farewell to Kings, we spoke to Crown Lands about Rush's fifth album, their own dream recording environment, and how the music of Rush has influenced the duo's forthcoming new album.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

How did you first hear A Farewell to Kings and what did you think of it?
 
Comeau: I got into Rush because my parents openly hated Rush when I was a teenager, and I was really into punk rock — less for the musical chops and more for the spirit of rebellion. Then, when I realized my parents actually liked the Clash, and they thought the Misfits were funny, I was like, "Hmm, what do they hate? They hate Rush. Perfect, I'll download all their albums." So, actually, I got their discography off my hip uncle, and downloaded that on my iPod.
 
The opening two tracks, "A Farewell to Kings" and "Xanadu," just blew my mind with the fact that they recorded a lot of those pastoral sounds — like the acoustic guitar and the percussion — out in the courtyard of Rockfield Studios, so you can hear all the birds chirping. I had never really heard that kind of ambiance on recorded music before, and that really just captured my imagination. At that point, I was 14 years old and playing bass guitar, so I got to Rush through getting into music with really prominent bass playing. You know, [Green Day's] Mike Dirnt, [the Clash's] Paul Simonon were big influences, but I had never really heard anyone like Geddy Lee before, other than maybe John Entwistle from the Who.
 
[A Farewell to Kings] opened my mind to odd time signatures, progressive rock song structure where you're not listening to verse-chorus-bridge-chorus anymore. It sounds like magic, right? It was the first time my mind registered what a synthesizer was, you know, hearing the Taurus pedal pad at the beginning of "Xanadu"…
 
Bowles: BWOWWWWWW
 
Comeau: You know, there certain sounds that resonate with people, right? For me, the Moog synthesizers — as Cody can probably attest to — I gravitate towards those kinds of textures and timbres in our own music because of A Farewell to Kings. That was the first record where [Lee] got his Mini Moogs and his Taurus pedals out. [Peart] went from being the drummer to being the percussionist . … I remember in high school, there was this girl I really liked, and her dad had A Farewell to Kings on vinyl. Whenever we would hang out, I would literally just go ransack his record collection — it was one of the first gatefold records I'd ever seen. Rush really spent a lot more money on the artwork on that record. You open it up and you see all the credits, the beautiful lyrics in that nice font.
 
Bowles: So you got into Rush by being a menace to your parents…
 
Comeau: Menace to society.


Cody, you previously shared with Exclaim! that Caress of Steel was your favourite Rush album. Where does A Farewell to Kings rank for you in their catalog?
 
Bowles: It changes all the time. I feel like between 2112 and Caress of Steel, it's one of those two, but A Farewell to Kings is a close third. Honestly, some days it's number one, it's weird. With Rush, I feel like any of their albums, any particular day can fluctuate in that ranking for me. That sense of wonder Kevin was describing, I had the same experience when I first heard "Xanadu" — it changed my life, but I didn't know what it was. My dad actually got me into Rush. He's a drummer, and he's been playing for a long, long time, and he was always into Rush growing up. I used to watch him play through all the drum sections of "2112" to a tee, perfectly, in my basement when I was not even a year old. I was just in absolute awe at what he was playing. He got me into Rush from that age; I listened to everything from tapes on this cassette player in our living room, and him playing the drums along to the radio. I remember, every time "Xanadu" would come on, it was the "magic song," and I would crank the volume. I didn't know what album it was from until I got my own records. I absolutely love the whole vibe of A Farewell to Kings. It's just so beautiful — very medieval. Every band that I really love has this weird phase where they have one or two albums that have this medieval edge to them; Queen's got the same thing with Queen II. Like Kevin was saying with the birds in the field you can hear in the acoustic guitar track, it's something you don't ever forget when you first hear that. It's like, "Wow, this is what music can be. This is the height it can reach." It's something I've been aspiring to [forever]. It's beautiful; it never leaves you.
 
Comeau: The technique on that record, I think starts showing [producer] Terry Brown's propensity to record outside, which not a lot of other people were really into at that time. On the intro of "A Farewell to Kings," they're all playing live together. Like, [Lifeson] is walking around the courtyard like a minstrel with an acoustic guitar; you can hear his feet if you listen to it closely, you hear him kind of slip and trip there a couple times. Then you have the glockenspiel and the MiniMoog going through … I think it was a Fender Twin or a Fender Deluxe. Anyway, they recorded all of that, you know, "live off the court." And near the beginning of "Xanadu," you hear that slapback. Because of the way they had the mics set up, it's the wood blocks reflecting off of the courtyard. I love that shit. They would experiment further when they got to [Le Studio in Morin-Heights, QC] in the '80s, where they got a lot of reverb on [Lifeson's] guitars by recording the amps outside, capturing sound reflections off the rock faces. A Farewell to Kings is so important because it's the first time we start hearing that kind of stuff on Rush records.
 
Is the music of Rush something you keep in regular rotation as listeners?
 
Bowles: Rush have always been my favourite band since as far back as I can remember — a household staple. They were honestly one of three bands I would listen to until high school exclusively. Just yesterday actually, I was listening to 2112.
 
Comeau: I've gotten really into live bootlegs. I find Rush such an exciting live band because of how they would actually recreate their studio records, note for note, cut for cut, in a way you never really saw back in the day. There's other bands like the Grateful Dead where shows are completely different night after night, while Rush went down a completely different path where they're like, "We're gonna recreate [the studio recording] perfectly with three guys." The fact they embraced technology — getting into sequencers so early on to the point where they had to build their own foot switches with the right polarity — wasn't standard [for live performance] back in the day. They weren't using click tracks or backing tracks until the end of their career, but they pushed technology so far forward; their live sound was so far ahead of many other bands at that point. You can hear it on those on those bootlegs — even the crappy audience boom box tape recordings.
 
Bowles: And [Lee's] voice was unbelievable, night after night. Like, people don't really give him enough credit for that. He was one of the most consistent vocalists I think I've ever heard.
 
I feel like a major flashpoint for any Rush detractor is Geddy's voice. Cody, do you remember the first time you heard Geddy Lee sing and what you thought?
                               
Bowles: Yes, it was "2112," and it gave me goosebumps, and I fucking cried [laughs]. It was so beautiful. I thought it was a woman, honestly, for a long time. After that, I was just like, "Wow, I don't know how people can even sing like that. This is unbelievable. This is the most amazing singing I've ever known." And to this day, some of the best I've ever heard in my life.
 
How about the moment you heard him hit the incredibly high note at the end of "Cygnus X-1"?
 
Bowles: Of course! You never forget it. It's like, "Oh my god. How do you do that?"
 
Comeau: Such a great tune. I love "Cygnus" because it's a return to the goofy side of storytelling that Rush embraced on Caress of Steel. With the spoken word and multi-part quite it's very a return to "The Necromancer" type of storytelling, which I really value in Rush's music. The whole of A Farewell to Kings has this medieval quality to it — and then it ends with a spaceship going into a black hole [laughs].
 
Bowles: Okay, Rush, let's go. I don't care if it's the medieval record — let's go to space!
 
Comeau: And let's throw some Don Quixote references in there for good measure.
 

I feel like for the two of you, the favourite song from A Farewell to Kings is "Xanadu." Outside of synths and sound design, any other parts of the song that make it a standout?
 
Comeau: Yeah, the one that goes… [sings guitar melody]
 
Bowles: That long [second pre-chorus] run... Honestly, I spent years trying to figure that scale out like that extended fill [Peart] was playing. I owned [his instructional DVD Anatomy of a Drum Solo], I went over the whole thing 20 million times — I still can't do it.
 
Comeau: That's something else I love about Rush: they aren't afraid to make blatant use of a scale as a riff. It's such a unique quality of their music. Those Pete Townshend chords at the beginning when [Lifeson] goes to the 12-string, taking that E shape and doing all these cool suspended chords — chords that are very simple grips, but are harmonically so interesting. I think that's another thing that makes Alex Lifeson such an exciting guitar player: he's not afraid to have these giant voicings that work so well because of [Lee's] melodic bass underneath. That guitar solo at the end, it's brilliant. I completely rip that solo off at the end of "Sun Dance" now, this big, long power ballad that we do. In the original recording, we didn't do a guitar solo, but we do an extended one live and it's like "100 per cent dude, I'm just quoting 'Xanadu.'" No one's called me out on it — I throw these little Easter eggs in, especially when we're playing live, to be like, "This is for the Rush boys out there."
 
I'm sure you already know this, but it's still worth saying that the recorded version of "Xanadu" was the second take. The first take was to get the levels, dial everything in, and then they went through the entire song again and that's the version that's on the record.
 
Bowles: They're monsters.
 
Comeau: When we met Alex Lifeson, and we had our double-necks, the first thing we did was start playing "Xanadu" and he joined in!
 
If either of you had to pick your least favourite song from A Farewell to Kings, which one would it be?
 
Bowles: Oh, I don't have a not-favourite song on this record. They're all good! It doesn't mean I don't like it, but if I had to skip one, it would be "Closer to the Heart."
 
Because it's ubiquitous compared to something like "Xanadu?"
 
Bowles: Yeah, because I've just heard it so many times — it's my alarm when I wake up in the morning.
 
Comeau: It kind of fills me with a jolt of energy — that was our walk-on song when we were on tour for years. The house lights go off, that song would start playing Cody and I would run on the stage. It fills me with a bit of that anxiety, like, "Oh shit, we've got to get to stage."
 

We've spoken about how A Farewell to Kings marked a sonic expansion, while Neil Peart has been quoted about how the trio chose performance ambition over simply adding a fourth band member. Have Crown Lands ever looked to make the power duo a power trio? Or do you kind of relish the challenge as Rush did?
 
Bowles: I honestly relish the challenge, but Kevin seems keener to add more people. To be fair, he's doing a lot with his feet [laughs]
 
Comeau: It's a conversation that resurfaces with greater regularity these days. We've had to basically split [Lee's] role in half, and each take a half ourselves. Cody's trying to do the [Peart] thing — with, I must say, great success — and I'm trying to cover all the keyboard and bass work, while also playing guitar. We're trying to distill Rush's three people into two people. They famously said, "We want to be the world's smallest symphony orchestra," and Cody and I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from that kind of cheeky joke trying to accomplish similar things with just two people.
 
It's tempting to go down that scary rabbit hole. I think like if Cody and I were to add members, when it comes to the dynamic, the politics of being in the band, I think we draw more inspiration from the Mars Volta, where the nucleus of that band is [Cedric Bixler-Zavala] and [Omar Rodriguez-Lopez]. I can't see myself ever stopping making music with Cody, because I love what we do together. But what happens if we decide to go the Talking Heads route, and we start the show with the two of us, and then by the end of it, maybe it's a 10-piece band?
 
After our show at [Festival d'été de Quebec], we went to see Femi Kuti. It was such a great performance, with 10 or 11 people onstage at any given point. We were counting all the mics and realized this 11-piece Afrobeat band uses the same amount of inputs we do as two people. It was like, "Oh God, what are we doing?"
 
You've mentioned how Rush went to Wales to record A Farewell to Kings at Rockfield Studios. Are either of you believers in location playing a role in the artistic process?
 
Bowles: I honestly do, yes. Big time. The essence of the place you are and your relationship to it is captured in the recordings.
 
Comeau: They recorded A Farewell to Kings and [1978 follow-up] Hemispheres at Rockfield Studios, and if you read interviews they actually regretted going back, realizing they were trying recapture the same magic. They didn't: Hemispheres, famously, was one of the hardest records for them. Location can be a bit of a double-edged sword like that. We have recorded and written a lot of our music at Chalet Studio [in Uxbridge, ON], where the owners are just incredible, beautiful people. So the vibe there has been immaculate, but there have also been some terrible sessions we've had there where I know, for myself, I struggled a lot. But when we go back and listen to the music, it was some of the most bright and sparkly material we've ever recorded. Environment plays a big role. Cody and I are not city people; we definitely enjoy the woods and being in nature. So that's why we like to record and write as far away from Toronto, or any other city, as possible. But sometimes it doesn't work out that way. You can't wait for the perfect environment to write a report sometimes. You know, especially when you're trying to do this for a living as a career. You just have to get in and do it.
 
Do Crown Lands have a dream studio or recording location?
 
Comeau: Ocean Sound in Norway. You should check it out on Instagram — it's a beautiful view. These days, especially with digital recording, it can be less about having all kinds of technology and more about the ambiance and your surroundings outside of the studio. It's funny I place importance on that; even when we're in a studio like Chalet, we never go outside — we're always just working!
 
Bowles: There are moments — sometimes we do actually go for walks, before and after our sessions, which really helps.  
 
Comeau: We recorded this new record — which is probably our best work — all at [80 Atlantic Avenue] in Toronto at Universal's new office building in Liberty Village, which is probably my least favourite place in the world. That's why I live in the country — I'm sitting here by my pond, feeding the squirrels, talking to you guys.
 
Crown Lands have worked with a holy triumvirate of Rush producers, you have played their instruments, and have even jammed with Alex Lifeson. Tell me about what these moments mean to you both as listeners, and now as professional musicians.
 
Bowles: It's been life changing and life affirming. I feel like, as kids, we never thought we'd actually get here to where we are able to say that. Upon reflection of these opportunities and doors that have opened, it is just as great as you read about, and these people are just as amazing as you thought. People often tell you, "don't meet your heroes," but in this case, it actually exceeded all expectations.
 
Comeau: Don't meet your heroes — unless they're Rush. They're really nice.
 
Bowles: And people affiliated with them. Their producers, all incredibly, incredibly sweet, gentle souls — patient, understanding and kickass at what they do.
 
Comeau: It's been really cool. Especially early on, meeting [A Farewell to Kings producer and recurring Rush collaborator Terry Brown], getting to know him and call him a friend and work with him… All of a sudden, things that were just kind of a given with Rush — like the way they would structure and arrange their songs — it was almost like an aha moment where Terry would say, "You don't need to repeat the chorus a third time, you only need two choruses." And you're like, "interesting," because Rush really only started doing chorus-heavy music after they worked with Terry. One of the first things he said to us was something like, "If you're chasing something, you're already behind it. Don't try and sound like anything else but you." When it comes to the way Rush started getting into odd time signatures, I think Terry played a huge role in that, based on his approach to arranging our music when we were writing with him.
 
Is there specific musical influence each of you take from A Farewell to Kings?
 
Bowles: For me, it's the influence of [Lee's] melody; the way he chooses the melodies and the way they interlock with the music. I feel like that's something I've absolutely internalized, consciously, just by osmosis through listening to it throughout the years.
 
Comeau: I think that balance of sound design and painting this beautiful scene, and that traditional hard rock musicality, has been something I've valued a lot from A Farewell to Kings. Especially on this new record that we're working on, I think we've gotten a lot closer to capturing that feeling — trying to capture a certain time and place, telling a story not just through words, but also through the music. " Xanadu" is one of the first examples of program music, which is instrumental music that tells a story or paints a picture. The way that song's first three minutes, literally, creates this incredible picture in your mind, and I think we've done that with a lot of the new record as well, where a lot of the storytelling takes place in the music, giving it this kind of cinematic quality.

How has the music of Rush influenced the forthcoming new record from Crown Lands?
 
Bowles: [laughs] It influenced this record a metric fuck-ton.
 
Comeau: Can we publish that?
 
Bowles: It seriously influenced us a lot. In terms of my drumming, I really look to my father's playing, and he was also very influenced by Rush and [Peart] — his favourite drummer, obviously. So it's him and [Peart] at the forefront of the inspiration for all of my fills, and my headspace for when I was composing these parts. As for the vocals, I mean, it's the wildest shit I've ever done — it's in the Geddysphere.
 
Comeau: Totally, especially on the opening track. We used pretty much the same combination of amplifiers that [Lifeson] had in-studio with him on Moving Pictures. And I'd like to think we got pretty close to the Moving Pictures guitars — I'll let you judge for yourself. From an engineering standpoint, I think Moving Pictures is still one of the greatest-sounding albums of all time. It's so fresh, even today. The fidelity of the instruments on that record has always stood out to me, and I think we got really close to that on this new record.