Drummer Neil Peart of Rush has no immediate plans to leave the Canadian rock trio, but the decision is certainly on his mind.
The problem has nothing to do with Rush going downhill. The band, which also includes Geddy Lee (bass, synthesizers, lead vocals) and Alex Lifeson (lead guitar), is beginning a new tour.
So why is Peart somewhat dissatisfied? The problem is that the 29-year-old drummer craves challenges. It's crucial to him to keep expanding musically, he says, and after eight years, Rush doesn't satisfy his needs so easily anymore.
"Years ago, at the end of a tour, I might have learned 10 new things," Peart explained. "Now I'll be happy to come off the tour learning two new things."
He senses the law of diminishing returns operating against him. "The more you know, the more difficult it is to improve," he said. "As you keep expanding in one general musical area, like rock, you eventually have nowhere to go. I'm still learning and getting excited by the music, but it gets harder to do that all the time. I'm not progressing as much as I did a few years ago."
Without a constant challenge, Peart becomes frustrated. To him, it's disastrous if the music becomes too easily. [sic]
"It's got to be hard to play or I get sick of it," he said. "There has to be that element of challenge and that's only there in complex music. It should never be that easy to walk out there and play. If the music is difficult to play sometimes it won't sound that great, but sometimes it will be great. You can only aim for greatness when you're playing difficult music. It's important to aim for greatness, for perfection."
To Peart, no concert is ever routine because, in any one of them, there's the possibility he might come close to perfection. "I have a picture in my mind of what perfection is," he explained. "There's no excuse not to reach that level, to achieve the best performance you're capable of. I measure myself against that level. I try to be as perfect as possible with things like rhythmic flow and tempo changes. I try to keep the tempo as constant as possible.
"All those little things are evaluated in my mind. Then I say, 'Oh, I blew that; oh, I didn't do that; oh, too slow here.' Out of 100, there might be four or five that stand out in my mind as approaching my best. The fans can't usually pick out these mistakes because they're subtle, but I know when I make them and they bother me.
Peart seems to be at the point where he's manufacturing musical challenges. When a musician does that, it usually means he is getting bored.
His solution is to seek challenges outside music. Since becoming Rush's lyricist during his early years with the band, he has developed a fondness for writing. Now he's interested in writing prose. Whenever the band needs a writer, for press releases or biographies, Peart eagerly volunteers. He also has had some articles published.
"I'm grooming myself to be a professional writer," he said. "I feel like a beginner at it, as I did when I started in music. I want to learn writing the way I learned drumming, by watching what others do and learning from it. When I started drumming, I got exposed to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Now I'm trying to learn by reading good writers. Writing prose is a nice, new challenge to me. I can go anywhere with it. That feeling is important to me."
"Signals," released last fall on PolyGram Records, isn't a typical Rush album. Only in its impressive sales - it has sold over a million - is it similar to the most recent Rush albums: "Permanent Waves," "Moving Pictures," and "Exit... Stage Left."
Since its early albums in the mid-Seventies, Rush has been drifting away from hard-core heavy metal and into what might be called sophisticated heavy metal. "Signals," with its new synthesizer wrinkle, probably is Rush's most experimental album yet. On this album, high energy is there only in spurts. The music is not consistently turbulent. It's less spontaneous, more cerebral, at least partially due to Peart's thought-provoking lyrics and his drive to make Rush's music more complex.
"Signals" is rather chaotic. Those who know Rush's music can easily tell that the band is uncertain of its direction on the album. It seems as if the musicians were determined to make a change and did it without completely thinking it through.
"The album is a little schizophrenic," Peart admitted. "There are directions In the song writing that are definitely schizoid. We tried to make a big jump and got sidetracked here and there. We wanted the music to be both thoughtful and visceral, to have high energy and still be rational and intelligent. There are things on the album that wander off in strange areas. All that I can say is that we were trying to satisfy this need to explore."
The three musicians always have been proud of Rush's music being expansive enough to encompass any of their explorations. "None of us ever has had to go outside the band to do what we wanted to do musically," Peart noted. "There never was a time when we had to say this or that doesn't fit Rush. If Geddy wanted to play more keyboards, he could do it. If he wanted to sing in a different register, he could do it. Or if I wanted to play some big-band jazz or reggae, I could do it. That's why solo albums haven't been a big imperative for us."
But that apparently has changed. Lee and Lifeson have been experimenting with solo material. Surprisingly, some of it wound up on "Signals."
"Geddy and Alex were having a go at solo material," Peart said. "They were looking for something different. We ended up stealing those solo songs for the group album. That proves that anything we want to do as solo artists could be modified to fit the group."
Still, that doesn't mean that Lee and Lifeson have satisfied their solo urges and won't initiate other outside projects. Obviously, all three are in a state of flux, craving experimentation and change. They know many of their fans were turned off by some of the bizarre explorations on "Signals." Another album like that might alienate even more fans.
Will they tone down their experimentation, settle on a cohesive sound, and settle into simply being members of Rush? The next album most likely will indicate their decision. It certainly will be the most important album Rush has ever made.