Late winter, Neil Peart and I met over early evening dinner and warm cognac to talk about music and drumming. We first met two years ago but this was the first opportunity we'd had to discuss our favourite passion. Unfortunately, by the time I turned on my recorder, many good things had already been discussed. The following are excerpts from a tape recorded interview in the latter part of the evening.
How conscious are you of the show when you're playing? Or are you going for it as though your eyes were closed, so to speak?
Depends on how hard it is. Some nights it's difficult - you have certain standards that you want to live up to, and some nights everything seems to click. Some nights you're working against your equipment or bad acoustics and those nights you tend to be more introverted. Whereas, if there are no problems, there is more interaction on the stage amongst the three of us, and you can be more extroverted.
Do you think that the audience is aware of it?
No. because one is always trying to maintain that standard. We might have to work harder to deliver it, but we usually do. Over a period of weeks an audience might be able to judge one show as being a bit weaker than the others, but for the most part an automatic pilot kind of consistency takes over.
Right. Everything around you can be blowing up but your mind is still on the gig. You can be talking with your roadie about something not being right, while still playing.
But, that can be distracting too. That's why I get impatient with electronics. If the monitors aren't happening it tends to distract you. A bad peak or something like that means you have to try and analyse the problem, tell the roadie to turn this or that down, and still concentrate on your playing.
Your monitor mixer, does he have a mix coming in for Alex and Geddy?
No, I have a small mixer which I need for my own monitors behind me, and the front washes are aimed at me so I get all the keyboards. guitars and vocals very directly. The front washes intersect at me, though they are aimed at Geddy and Alex.
Is there any problem with miking?
No, the mics are pointing in the opposite direction pretty well, and any mics that do point forward are turned off most of the time.
You've said that you and Geddy start to play things that are instinctively different. You listen for it then play it differently next time. Either of you can embellish and the other one knows where you are going.
Yea, sometimes we look at each other shocked because something just happened between us that was just like telepathy. Sometimes though we've played a song a hundred times and we both do something together spontaneously, we just go 'Phew, how did we do that?' That may happen only two or three times a tour, but it is amazing when it does.
Something like that has to happen, though, in order to keep you interested in a tune. Each time you like to approach it as though it were the first time. When one plays the same tunes night after night, you have to keep that spice up.
Sometimes the songs are difficult enough to still be a challenge, though we've done them night after night. To play a song perfectly every time is nearly impossible so each time you psyche yourself up by saying, 'Tonight I'm going to do it.' It's a constant source of inspiration.
What's inspiring you now, that's new for you in drumming?
Well, I'm coming into a new relationship with triplets - left, right emphasis. I've gone through a lot of things in the last year with the left hand emphasis instead of right hand which is allowing me to use different areas of the drum kit differently. I can achieve more accents by being a bit more ambidextrous. I'm working at it until it becomes natural.
Do you actually sit down and write for the drums?
No, I sort of hear what I want, then sit down and try to play it. I have to program my hands to respond because I'm some places musically in my head, that I'm not physically, yet. Once I'm set mentally I try to get my body to follow up. Actually, that comes a lot from trying to figure out what other drummers are doing too.
What do you base your solos on?
I try to structure them like a song where you have a certain fixed pattern. I have patterns that I can play within the solo, plus space for free form when I really feel 'on'. And that makes sure the solo is never exactly the same two nights in a row.
Do you enjoy doing them or is it just part of the show?
I like them. I enjoy the single-minded mentality of it. I get right into it, right down inside myself to get the rhythm. I've accumulated so much over the years that parts come out during the solo.
How has your grip evolved over the years?
I started on the traditional grip. To play rock and roll I switched to the matched grip for power and dexterity, and because I could get my left hand to more places with it. Now I use both. For more rudimentary stuff I'Il use the traditional grip. I spent so long learning the traditional grip that I would rather use it for some things than learn all over again for the matched grip.
As a player do you still find time to work on those things that you want to get to?
In our soundchecks I use time for independent experimentation. Since the drums are done first I work on little figures or something else constructive instead of just bang, bang, bang. That's fruitful for exploring new ideas because if you make a mistake there's no harm done. After the band soundcheck we leave room for meandering. As a matter of fact, that middle section in "Tom Sawyer" came from just such a situation. Geddy played a melody on the Moog and I got into the rhythm of it. A lot of good ideas come from soundcheck tunes.
Have you been influenced by any black drummers, such as Tony Williams?
Only indirectly. I've always followed rock drummers because that was the kind of music that I liked best. I grew up with big band music so I heard a lot of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and I've tried to dabble in jazz. I'm glad I learned that because it gave me a good set of standards to learn from, I still do licks that I learned at that time. It's all relevant.
Rock drumming, or for that matter (western) kit drumming, is very young; its history is in the making. I know that I have a feeling for my craft as a drummer. A responsibility to try and bring It forward.
That's a constant pressure that every serious musician feels, that you have to deserve to be what you are. I guess it's a feeling of unworthiness which isn't so unique. I think most people have felt that; I know I have. You really have to work hard to occupy this position. You owe something. If you're calling yourself a drummer you better live up to that. It's a profession, like engineering or being a doctor. You have to establish your credentials.
As a musician and a drummer, I don't know.
I think, Martin, you are a musician by definition because you are much more than a timekeeper. You're a musician in the creative sense and in the melodic and structural sense. There's a big line there. Gary McCracken and I talked about that too. The difference between an accompanist, an instrumentalist and a musician. You hear people whose empathy with the other musicians is so good, and their way of playing to complement the other musicians, and to frame them, is so good. That's based on an understanding that only comes with experience, working with other musicians. You see a horn player or a violinist whose phrasing is so nice, like the way Allan Holdsworth plays guitar; the way he phrases his instrument it sounds like a saxophone sometimes. That sort of syncopation amazes me. It goes hand in hand with the way Bill Bruford phrases his drumming. It's partly really spontaneous and instinctive drumming, and partly very disciplined and thought out.
I remember when I was about five I saw a dancer and I was just knocked out by that. I thought, 'that's for me.' Some kind of expression through rhythm. And my older brothers and sisters were musical so it was always around, and I started to pick it up.
I remember for me that it was being attracted to all the shininess of drum kits as well. They were so beautiful. It was a magical thing to me.
It's still that way for you. I mean you have incredible looking kits.
I think that's because I've always been in love with the way drums look. I love the combination of circles and straight lines. Geometrically they are very satisfying. There's also a hard thing to put into words about drums, but essentially, you hit them and no doubt there is something primally satisfying about that too.
Do you find that you get neurotic if you're not working at your drumming?
It's not easy to not work at it. It isn't something that you bring home in a briefcase and put aside at day's end. I like to play and work on lyrics. You can be struck by it anywhere - from a machine, the way people are walking - any number of places where you hear a strange combination of sounds. You hear a particular rhythm, you hear other musicians on the radio, and first you respond as a fan, then you get analytical. You respond to the emotional aspect of it, then you're encouraged to find out more about it. You devise the creative aspect of it from the craftsmanship of it, and then personalize what you want to do with it. You visualize what you want, you teach your hands what to do. That's the craftsmanship part of it.
I'm fascinated by the sounds that radial tires make on different kinds of pavement.
And I find train tracks irresistible. I find the rhythm of words and the rhythm of drums quite similar. It breaks down to the same types of phrasing and verse. There's the same kind of regular or irregular underlying rhythm, and has a very strong time signature.
When you're working with words, do you find that you are writing them as counter rhythms?
Some are built in as tricky phrases. It may demand an unusual musical framework to accomplish that.
How do you perceive your use for a multi-tom kit?
More melodic and versatile. The actual rhythmic patterns always remain the same. That's what a lot of the diehard traditionalists fail to realize. No matter if you had eight tom toms or three...
It's still basically a bass drum, snare drum, high hat...
...and your fills are always going to revolve around triplets or sixteenth notes, or sixteenth and a quarter type fills. All those things always remain constant whether you do them over four drums or eight. It's not like you're getting away with anything, or getting a big advantage. You're just changing your notes that you're playing the same patterns on.
I always relate to a multi kit as voices. Sometimes you just want to 'speak' in a higher register.
That's what I like about other percussion aside from the drum kit. It gives you other voices. You're not limiting yourself to being just a timekeeper. You have a choice of other textures.
In the recording of your albums, do you change your sound from track to track?
Yes, we'll alter the sounds in order to get more bottom end or whatever, just tear down the mics and start over again. We used the Crown PZM microphone, which is a plate with a cardioid microphone that doesn't pick up any rebound signals. It only hears direct signals because of the plate it's mounted on. I tape it to my chest and it picks up the whole kit from my perspective, and later we mix it in, just like an ambience mike.
Do you think rock has always been sort of a "mad, angry" music?
Yes, I think that is the fundamental nature of it. It is a spirit of rebellion, and it definitely has to do with frustration. Youth feels that frustration.
How do you feel about your distance, age-wise, from teenagers?
Well, as a writer I find that I'm still angry about a lot of things and I think that has to be the first function. You have to be fired up about something one way or the other. You have to get angry to get motivated and being angry is fundamental to rock. It's important to have that spirit regardless of age.