Innerview - Neil Peart

Innerview with Jim Ladd, recorded June 11, 1981, transcriber unknown, edited by pwrwindows

Since the last time we had Neil Peart on our show, there has been a major change in the world surrounding Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. The popularity of Rush has literally exploded; a situation which has a bitter-sweet reality for Neil Peart...Do you like it this way?

Funny you should say that. I find it a little uncomfortable to be truthful. There was a perfect measure of success that we reached over the past 2 or 3 years that gave us independence. No one leaning on us or telling us what we had to do to our music to make it sell, because it was commercially successful enough to make the business side of things very happy. Also we could go out and headline our tours and be in control of the presentation of ourselves, and our motive. Travelling and playing and all that was in our control, but at the same time we didn't have people following us around everywhere; hotels full of people, and all the rudeness going on too, that makes it so strange.

And that's strange as opposed to fun to you?

Yeah, I find it very uncomfortable, that position, the way people tend to consider us and look at me as a human being now; I can't deal with it comfortably. I can't relate to people who have a one sided view of me, thinking that they've known me for all these years and they know everything about me. Also the adulation side of it too makes it very uncomfortable. You can't relate to a person on a basis like that. I like to meet a person on a professional basis or on a stranger basis and strike up a friendship out of whatever common points we might have. But when someone's coming at you so intently, yelling and screaming, or whatever, going berserk, there's just no way of responding humanly. You can either put out a little facade and weather it out, or quiver inside and escape as quick as you can - like I do!

You go on to say that to live in the "Limelight', "one must put aside the alienation and get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme".

That's coming back to music again. How difficult sometimes it becomes to maintain music as a focus. When you're on the road, for instance, it's two hours of every day that you spend on stage, and for most part of the rest of the day leads up to that or winds down from it. And it is definitely the focus of your life. When the day gets more complicated, there's more and more demands on your time. Instead of time on your hands, you have hands on your time (I like that!). That's the question involved there: you have to put aside all that, and it's songwriting that's important and that's going to make the difference between feeling good and not feeling good. And if I walk off stage knowing that I haven't played as well as I can, I feel bad. And it doesn't matter how many thousands of people are telling me that it was good - it wasn't. On the other hand when I walk off stage knowing that I've played well or close to as well as I can, then I feel very satisfied. And it's a sort of peace of mind that nothing can intrude on, negatively or positively. You just feel good about it and you don't need external ratification or external approval for that.

You mentioned this last time we got together too. You've made a point of you guys being very principled in what you do, and you seem to have a very strong, almost moral commitment to being professional and good and honest in your writing as opposed to just whatever's going to sell.

Yeah, without trying to be too bombastic about that, it is true that we have tried to guide everything by the principles that first made us interested in it. In terms of the freedom of choice and the type of material that we would play and the expression of music that we felt was exciting and good, and would excite other people as well. We are music fans and we like music, and we know what we respond to in music, so therefore if we respond to that in our music that little equation will hold true. In terms of ethics or morals or whatever, that too becomes a greater thing, because the bigger the whole enterprise becomes the wider our career becomes spread. We try to watch over things like our programs and all of the things that are sold with our name on them. It becomes very important to us because of that fact. Things like our album cover packaging and all of that leads to arguments and disagreements; the kind of mental pressure of worrying about all these things and trying to make them all come together at the beginning of a tour. It would be so easy to delegate them, but at the same time it feels like you're cutting yourself loose in a certain way. If you stop paying attention to the details and stop wanting to do interviews and communicate, all of those things are very important to what we believe in, and to the communication of what we believe in. So that's the thing that grows in the telling too, unfortunately.

In 'Tom Sawyer', is this an overview, how you'd look at a 1980's rocker, today's kids on the street?

There's a lot of different ingredients in that song lyrically. It began as a song by another writer, a friend of ours who writes for a group called Max Webster. His lyrics we've always admired very much, and we have a close working relationship with that whole band. So he gave me this song and suggested it might be suitable for us. I added a certain amount of rewriting on it and it came out to be a 50/50 his and mine. The stance of it does definitely have a modern day's rocker persona about it.

This is without question the most popular song on the album.

Surprisingly so. It always surprises me how certain songs tend to become more popular than others, and you can never predict the ones. It was always one of my favorite songs, right from the rhythm track of it, because that's the part of it that I really liked. And that song exemplifies a change in our writing style that we've tried to institute on this album. We've tried to write more from the stand point of rhythm; we'll establish a rhythmic feel that we like and work the musical changes around that. In the past we would often find a musical pattern that we liked and then work rhythmic changes around that, which made the strata of our music very much different in that respect because there'd be shifting rhythms all the time. And it gave the music a certain 'twitchiness'; 'Tom Sawyer' is an example of a really steady, confident song.

There were times, in the way you guys write, where I think people would come away from listening to a song for the first time and say "That sounds like they took four different songs".

That certainly valid. We've tended very much to work in pieces. Now that we have more experience with arrangements and dealing with rhythm and melody and so on, we can apply that experience into a conventional manner and manage to make it more interesting than a cliché without becoming meandering. That's something Pye Dubois, the other writer, is able to create very well, this modern day street character. That's a part of his writing that I wanted to incorporate into our style too, so yes it does have partly to do with that streetwise character of integrity or whatever; a hero certainly. That has a certain amount of nostalgia in it for me because the 'Tom Sawyer' boyish adventurousness I really relate to. I was always poking around in rivers and streams, building rafts, going on hikes, that sort of thing.

When I was a kid I used to poke around Becky Thatcher.

(Laughing) well that's of course a part of it too.

What is the occult interest in this band, and who has that?

The occult...I think it's more of a fascination than an interest. I would say that we all share that interest; things like 'The Twilight Zone', we're all very much fans of that. And the supernatural is a very appealing thing. I'm somewhat of a pragmatic person; I believe in an objective reality and all of that stuff, so I find it hard to be really convinced that these things are all true. But at the same time I find them fascinating to think about, regardless if they are or not. I think that's the only way I can express it. To me, creating an alternate world, sometimes I can see it as just a vehicle. But at the same time it's a fascination for its own sake. The fact that there might be an alternate universe and powers that we don't know about, people with ways of communication and expression, methods of technology and so on that are advanced; all of that is fascinating to think about.

In a lot of the symbols on the album cover and so forth it's more specific than "are these people in different time zones". Are there other entities?if you had to put a collar on it, it'd be more like black magic than white magic. I mean the five pointed star, the guy that's burning with the cross and all of that. And I'm trying to stay away from the word here of any type of satanic thing, but it does bring that up as opposed to something else in the occult.

Well, that's interesting... I have to say that occult symbolism too is a very attractive thing graphically alone. All those pentagrams and weird hieroglyphics and stuff are very attractive graphically, but I think that the influence is felt in our symbolism. But it must be just a graphic association, because certainly none of us is involved in Alistair Crowley or black magic of any kind, or devil worship or anything like that. No one else has ever made that association with me; I find it hard to justify and I can be specific about different examples. For instance the five pointed star just evolved from the words to the song, and in '2112' it just mentions the red star was the symbol of the Solar Federation, which was a totalitarian authoritarian kind of collectivist oppression.

"Witch Hunt", a song for the moral majority, an ode to the KKK.

Partly so, it has to do with that mob mentality as far as I'm concerned. Like for instance in the part of Canada where we live, Province of Ontario has film censorship. It has to do with that, and it has to do with racism or religious persecution or prejudice of any kind any time: Nazism, McCarthyism, any of them, take your pick, I hate them all. Basically what I'm focusing on is mob mentality. And that's the kind of mentality that killed witches as much as killed Jews or kills Negroes now. And I think all of it is terrible.

I really like the way it opens. Is that a crowd?

Yeah, we created all that ourselves. You just flashed me back in my whole memory! We were out in the snow, I guess it was early November or so up at Le Studio in the mountains with snow and everything. We set up the microphone about 40 feet away from the studio, and then went out in the parking lot in the thick of black night. There's no street lights or anything round there. It's very, very dark, and we were all standing out there! I sort of played the part of the rabble rouser and stood there giving a very evangelist kind of speech, exhorting the crowd to blood and violence and "save your soul"! We had all the guys from our crew, the other guys in the band all screaming and so on. And we did all this again and again, and tracked it over each other to create this feeling of wild hysteria; that madness that comes over a group of people and they do things they'd never do as individuals, and will probably contemplate with horror for the rest of their lives. You just know that people aren't inherently that evil, and it takes a special kind of madness of knowing... It's a really brutal thing but at the same time as a human being I can partly understand how it happens, in the sense of getting all keyed up by everyone around you. And there's no one to censure your approval. You look around to see everyone else being exactly the same, so what you're doing must be right. It's a particular kind of madness, but it seems to come in very sane, balanced people. I've felt that kind of mindless prejudice, just by nature of, what would it be? Like 12 years ago, to have long hair was to be discriminated against. Restaurants in my home town wouldn't serve people with long hair. And stuff like that was shocking to me, because it was someone taking a negative attitude towards me without having a clue why, or what I was like or anything. So that was a sharp stab in the face for me. And of course the late 60' s was a very tense time of civil rights in America and that was very vivid to my mind, being a naïve teenager. And that kind of brutality, being as close as a place like Detroit for instance, which is very close to where I was brought up, it made a big impact to watch that stuff on T.V. It has a certain graphic power. For instance, I can still remember the images now, and the sense of just not understanding at the time. So I know it hit me very hard, and that would probably have a bearing on it now too. I know prejudice and hostility in general have always made a strong impact on my nature. The important part of it, as you say, fundamentally it could be anybody anywhere, it doesn't necessarily have to be the old South or the witch hunts of the 16th/17th centuries. It's all of them.

It could be the Republican party today.

Well, I hate to take it as broad as that because I don't think they're all like that, and not everybody wants to protect us from ourselves and shove law and order down our throats. I don't think that's necessarily the foundation of the whole Republican party. But unfortunately there are certain factors of it, as there are in both ends. There are a lot of people who would have us do things for their own good, and that principal alone I have a lot or quarrels with. Conservation, by definition must be a bad thing, because you can't keep the past alive artificially. That's the premise. But also the premise of Liberalism is sort of mindless change sometimes, so that can be equally bad. The state of America right now, is the state of everywhere; some of it's good and some's bad, and that's been the same for as long as I've known America well. And it's certainly the same in Canada, and it's the same about music. I think that's kind of become my maxim about everything: if someone asks me how I'm doing now it's "well, some good, some bad". Some days I like it and some days I don't.
(Red Barchetta is heard) It's not only a fantasy story, but it's also a personal fantasy of mine, because I have such a relationship to the sensuality of open cars and driving down winding country roads and so on. In the ideological sense too, it expresses a spirit of rebellion that I really like. Rebellion against authority and the individuality that's forever been represented by the car, especially to youth and rock music and so on. It's the ultimate metaphor really for independence and aggression. Power almost.

It seems like, here's a guy who's had it with the city. He's got to get out and drive fast.

That's what I get when I get home from being on the road all the time, and I've been cooped up in a hotel or bus, and in the halls and airplanes and so on. So I go home and I go driving, and it's a really free feeling. I put a nice tape on and just cruise.

Where did the chase come from, with the 'alloy aircars' and all that?

Well the plot derives from a short story I read years ago. It was just one of those things I read in a magazine, 'Road and Track' magazine for that matter. And it was just so powerful it struck me for years and years. In fact it was 1973 I've since found out, that I read the story, because I got in contact with the magazine to try and reach the author of the story, which I wasn't able to do incidentally. The story was in 1973 prior to all fuel crisis business. It was just at the time of government intervention with safety vehicles, like big trucks, and this guy would take his sportscar and go riding through the country and be chased by these huge things.

What is the studio environment like? You made a point of how you like going back to this place.

That's a really nice place. It's a mountain range called the Laurentian Mountains in the Canadian Shield part of Canada, so it's quite rugged and northerly. And the studio is situated on about 200/250 acres of private, wooded, mountainous area. It's beautifully equipped, technically speaking, and very isolated. The isolation is what's important for us, and I guess our last four albums have been made in a very isolated, sort of rural environment. It just facilities the concentration, that's what it comes down to. There's less distraction. When we used to work in Toronto, we'd have our friends coming over, and business people coming over, which isn't necessarily objectionable because you like to see your friends, but it curtails the amount of work that gets done. The continuity of your concentration is constantly being broken towards other things.

When you say you don't want your concentration broken, this is something that a lot of creative people talk about. That they go in to, and God I don't want to use the word "Space" here in L.A. man, but there's a certain thing when you have to set up the walls and say "ok, it's time to work now".

It's almost like a switch, I find. For instance when it comes to writing lyrics, which is something that I only do for a month of the year when we're working on songwriting, when I can sit down at that point and take out my note book (all through the tours and everything I'm making notes and writing down titles I like and stuff like that). I find when I go into the writing mode (we tend to describe it as different modes of our lives), I can sit there all day and pour out lyrics. It's just the craftsmanship that takes my time, because the inspiration has already happened and been written down. So all of those associations come back to me at that time and I'm able to sit down and focus on words, period. All I think about is marshalling these words into order, and different ways of phrasing them and rhyming them and so on. And it is a capital 'S' space that you're in, nothing else is in there at all. You're thinking only of words. When it comes down to writing the music, it's the same kind of thing for us. It's a total world of music, that's all you're thinking of. And it becomes so intense through writing and recording in fact, that when you listen to other people's music, all you're hearing is studio sounds and mixing and playing techniques. You get so much into the craftsmanship of it, again because the inspirational part of whatever happens so quickly and it's gone so fast. And then there's so much more time goes into making that a reality.

You literally keep notes for eleven months out of the year, and only really sit down to put songs into form during that time?

Yeah, that's the only way I can work really, because the intensity that we work under on the road nowadays just doesn't permit anything like that. In the early days we could get together?we'd finish the gig by 10 o'clock and the pressure level was obviously much, much lower. There were no expectations on us and no feeling when you walk on stage that you must be great! So that made a different lifestyle. We were never surrounded by people, there was only seven of us on the road at the time. We could write on the road, whereas now that's impossible. You can have ideas on the road, but you can never get down to working them out.

Here's a real humanistic song: 'Vital Signs', which you immediately reduce the human being into a machine.

I didn't really mean to do that, I meant to elevate the machine to the human being, to a certain extent. That metaphor has been read both ways, a little more than I intended, I think. I didn't really want to say that people are machines, because I don't think that's the case. But I find it interesting that when people build the machines they seem to be so human. Not only in the fact of being quirky and idiosyncratic as machines always are: playing you up and seeming to be very vengeful and so on, but also the names that we give for mechanical relationships or electronic relationships and so on. A word like interface for instance. It's a very electronic and high tech word, but at the same time when I think of interface I think of human interface, where there is a perfect ruling and meeting of people on each of their levels: physically, emotionally and intellectually. You achieve interface, in a cold way of putting it, but in humanistic terms it's a wonderful thing. So I find that these relationships between so called pragmatic things and the 'spiritual world of humanity'. I see the parallels very strongly.

Finally the instrumental on here, 'YYZ', which you say is the code for the Ontario National Airport.

Toronto Airport: the airport sends out a little Morse code beacon which airplanes can identity its control tower by. And the one for YYZ in Morse code happens to be the rhythm that opens the song: long, short, long, long, long. All those we just turned into rhythm.

And that's directly from the Morse code.

That is the Morse code.

Alright, you gonna play tonight?

Yes we have, the second night tonight at the forum.

What time you going?

I think it's a 7:30 show here, so we'll be on about 8:35.

What time do you get off, do you know?

8.35, 9.35, 10.35...about quarter to eleven. We do just over 2 hours.

Well I wish you luck, hope it goes well.

It should be a good one. Three in a row's our lucky one always; we play three consecutive nights and the third one's great. We blow ourselves out, and then the fourth one's an anti-climax!

Sounds like my sex life!

Ha, ha!