Strings on Fire: Joel Derouin Talks Clockwork Angels Tour
The live string accompaniment is one of the highlights of Rush’s Clockwork Angels tour. It’s the first time other musicians have appeared on stage with the band, and it’s generated a considerable buzz. The string parts were written and aranged by David Campbell, the noted Canadian-American composer whose orchestral work has been ubiquitous on rock albums for decades. For the tour, the concert master is violinist Joel Derouin, a veteran session musician whose work is featured on dozens of albums and scores for film and TV. I spoke with Derouin over the phone the night before Rush’s Oct. 20 Newark show to see how the tour is going for the string ensemble and get his thoughts on the music of Rush. Derouin grew up in Cornwall, Ontario, between Montreal and Toronto, and today lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two teenage daughters.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Rush Vault: How did the string section of Clockwork Angels come together?
Joel Derouin: Most of the rock records you hear strings on, David Campbell wrote the charts for. When Rush was recording Clockwork Angels, they hired him and of course he brought his team on board. I’ve done many rock and roll records with David Campbell. That’s how that came about.
RV: Have you worked with the other string musicians before?
JD: Most of them. Six are from Los Angeles [Adele Stein, Audrey Solomon, Jacob Szekely, Gerry Hilera, and Mario de Leon] and two are from New York [Jonathan Dinklage and Entcho Todorov]. David knows the two from New York, because he does sessions there. He decided to break it up and have East Coast and West Coast groups. I’ve worked with the others from Los Angeles before, both with David and on session stuff.
RV: Talk a little about the string parts that Campbell wrote.
JD: They’re different. The violins are playing guitar parts, the cellos are playing bass parts. Sometimes we’re matching their (Geddy and Alex’s) parts. David is such an incredible writer, that the music we’re playing kind of infiltrates their music and their sound. I think it’s really enhancing. For a three-piece band, Rush sounds huge. They’re like an orchestra to begin with. So when you add us to it, with the natural sound of real strings, it really sparkles.
RV: Are your instruments amplifed?
JD: They are, they have pickups, but they keep their natural sound. We all have pretty good instruments, so it’s very much like an orchestra in which each instrument has its own sound, and the combination of that, of the sections, makes it really interesting and rich. [Read about the engineering issues in getting a good string sound for the live performances.]
RV: You’re a classically trained musician who also plays a lot of rock and jazz fusion. What are your thoughts on Rush’s music?
JD: Well, it’s progressive rock, for sure, to label it. I’ve always been intrigued by their music because of the time changes and their musicality. They’re incredible musicians and performers and instrumentalists. You almost have to see it to believe it. Many in their fan base are people in awe of their musicianship. I just like their music: it’s different and very well thought out.
RV: Let’s talk about the tour. How’s that going?
JD: We’re having a great time. The audience is always anticipating something different from Rush, they’re so progressive, and all of a sudden they see us up there, and their reaction when we start playing is just astounding. The whole thing is just such high energy from the time we get on until the time we play the last note. It’s an energy level that I’ve not experienced before on a tour.
RV: How about from the perspective of Alex, Geddy, and Neil?
JD: They’re truly excited to have us on stage with them. They’re really embracing it, and it was taking a chance, but they’re thrilled it’s being received by the audience as well as it has been.
RV: Have you had to make changes to your parts since the tour started, based on what’s working and what’s not?
JD: The charts were so well wrtten that we’ve only had to do little tweaks here and there, just from being on the road, adding a few things here or taking away a few things. I love that there are spaces, room to breathe, and we’re not playing all the time. It just works. On a physical performance level, we’ve all come to terms with how we should look. We shouldn’t be over the top. We should just play the charts as accurately as we possibly can as well as have a great time performing, without being distracting. I think we have it down at this point.
RV: Do things get a little hot up there, with the pyrotechnics right behind you?
JD: We’re used to the pyro now. At first it scared the heck out of us. You see how high the flames are. They’re about a foot behind our riser. We kind of step up to the front now! There are a couple of explosions in the show, called concussions. And the first couple of times those went off, it felt like someone cracking an egg and it was your skull. But we’re used to it now and we have these in-ear monitors, which are almost like ear plugs.
RV: Have you had any train wrecks while playing?
JD: No one makes mistakes. [Laughs.] I’m serious. We’re like a well-oiled machine. We’re all right next to each other. If someone makes a mistake, there’s something definitely wrong. We have the charts in front of us, but at this point, we’ve pretty much memorized the show. We use the charts basically as a reference point, because their music is so complex, with bars of rests and a lot of entrances and cut-offs.
RV: Describe a typical tour day.
JD: We have a day off between each show. Most of us get together for dinner, although if we have family or friends in the city were in, we’ll get together with them. If there’s an event going on, we might see that. And then the next day we have a sound check, at 5 o’clock, and then the show. We have to check out of the hotel by 1:30. We load up the tour buses, we do the show, and then we do the same thing afterward.
RV: Tell us a little about your background
JD: I started as a classical violinist, a graduate of the Montreal Conservatory, with an intensive background in chamber music, but I’ve played all kinds of styles. In high school, I put bands together so I could improvise. I was into the Allman Brothers and also listened to a lot of jazz and rock. I was influeced by Stephane Grappelli and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (the 1970s New York-based jazz fusion ensemble led by John McLaughlin) in jazz. When I saw the Mahavishnu Orchesta, in Ottowa when I was 16, I just went, “Wow, there’s another element there.” Jerry Goodman played the electric violin, so that inspired me to put a pickup on my violin and improvise, and Jean Luc Ponte (also a member of the ensemble) was also an influence.
I was always a Rush fan. They used to play Cornwall, my home town, and when I was in high school I would go see them. So, it’s kind of a dream come true for me to be performing with them now.
I’ve written background pieces for the odd movie or TV show, but I’m basically a performer. I do all the Fox shows, which I’m kind of taking a break from right now, but I do Family Guy, American Dad, and The Simpsons, which I’ve been doing for 10 years now, and I do a lot of motion picture sessions.
I’ve done quite a few movies with John Williams, all of them Steven Spielberg movies. Williams is amazing, and his relationship with Spielberg is fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like the mutual respect they have for each other. I’m blessed to have worked with really great composers, but Williams is really on the top of the list. I was in the hotel the other day watching The Terminal, the Tom Hanks movie in which because of his immigration situation he basically has to make his own little apartment in the airport. Williams did the score for that movie and it just shows his range. It was such a different kind of score.
When I was 21 years old, my first major rock and roll tour was with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was in 1977 when they were on the Works tour. And I’ve toured with Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, and Marvin Gaye. And I’ve performed with a number of artists in L.A., at the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl. But Rush is my biggest tour yet.
RV: How about your own music?
JD: One of the compositions I’ve written, with Stevie Nicks, is a tribute to Jane Goodall, called Jane. We did a huge benefit in Dallas, where we presented it and it ended up on one of her records, Street Angel.
As for my own writing, I’ve been very inspired by performing with Rush, and I would say that this genre of music is about as close as anything I would do on my own record: progressive rock with classical instuments and featuring electric violin.
In my style of electric violin playing, I’ve always tried to emulate the likes of guitar players Jeff Beck and John McLaughin. Once you put a pickup in a violin, it changes everything, because now you can do the distortion, giving a completely different flavor to violin playing. It changes the vibrato, it’s less classical. But I like being able to do both.
The violin is an incredible instrument. It has the range of a guitar, and in fact a lot of guitar players try to emulate violin players, and vice versa.
RV: What happens next for you?
JD: This leg of the tour ends at the beginning of December. I know that work is awaiting me. We just had two weeks off [between Sept. 30 and Oct. 10] and I worked during that period. I actually did a movie with Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s a very funny movie about magic. I did two days of that. I go back to my regualar recording routine when I get home.
RV: In sum, what’s your impression of Rush?
JD: The guys are incredible. They’re the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. They’re very, very generous. Being a part of this tour has been one of the best situations I’ve ever been in in my career. To be sure, the tour has been a sacrifice, especially for my family, but it’s Rush, so what can I tell you?
Joel with Audrey Solomin and Adele Stein playing parts of “YYZ” and Clockwork Angels selections: