Some rock stars spend their holidays in the lap of luxury, lounging in country homes. But not Rush drummer Neil Peart, who just returned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
"I was apprehensive at first, because a lot of people get sick and die from it," said Peart from New York during a tour break. "It was the first climb I've done, which made it an amazing experience. You never know if you'll make it or not. There's no heat, no water, and the food is maybe cabbage or potatoes. But I'm a nature lover, and I love doing something anonymous like that -- just dumping my self into a group of people without the cushioning atmosphere of friends. You get more focused, when you're away from that rock star stigma."
But the Canadian trio has always seemed fond of challenges. Consider their current tour, which hits the Worceter Centrum Dec. 2 and 3. They'll be playing most of the material from their recent album, "Hold Your Fire," which has the fullest production of any Rush record: layers of keyboards, computer effects and orchestration. But they're determined to play it all live as a three piece, so Rush members -- drummer Peart, singer/bassist Geddy Lee, and guitarist Alex Lifeson -- will be handling synthesizers along with their regular axes.
"Everybody's carrying two or three parts at once," says Peart. "Alex is playing keyboards with his feet, and I have a percussion synthesizer. Every year we talk about adding another person, but we always decide we don't want to kill the chemistry. Plus, we take a lot of pride in being able to do it all ourselves. It makes it more challenging to walk on stage every night and not know if everything is going to work. I remember when we were in rehearsal, the first time we got through the whole show at once. We walked out feeling so exhilarated."
Rush's greatest challenge may have been earning respect as a serious rock band. When their debut album was released in 1973, they were knocked -- sometimes accurately -- as a second-rate Led Zeppelin. Critics also cringed when they moved on to Yes-style art rock on 1975's "2112" album. But Rush persisted, earning more finesse with each album. They mastered art rock on 1978's "Hemispheres," before moving on to shorter, more direct songs. A Police-style reggae influence turned up on 1983's "Signals" and recent albums feature a modern, high-tech keyboard sound. On the current tour they're reaching back to "Hemispheres" [for Lifeson's guitar showpiece, "La Villa Strangiato") but generally sticking with the more recent material.
"Some of the people who used to criticize our music were right," says Peart. "It was never a conscious effort to win those people over, just that we were genuinely trying to improve. After 'Hemispheres,' we knew we wanted to start working in new kinds of frameworks. We're all music fans, influenced by what goes on around us. For example, I thought the first Talking Heads album was really important. And I've always been a fan of rhythmically based music, so that's where the reggae came in."
While some Rush songs used to cover full album sides, the longest track on "Hold Your Fire" clocks in at a mere 5-1/2 minutes. "We accomplished all we wanted in terms of long, convoluted pieces. We got more clever at arrangements, so it comes out sounding smoother, not so jolting. The songs are still difficult enough to satisfy us as musicians, but it's no longer so blatant to the listener. In other words, it's no longer necessary to say, 'Look, we can play!'"
The down-to-earth trend also comes out in Peart's lyrics. Though he's still fond of philosophical themes, he now lets a personal side come through. "Actually I never studied philosophy in school; that interest didn't develop until later. It's more a matter of questing for knowledge: I've always had a monkey on my back, as far as needing to know things. But lately, I'm more concerned with observation -- looking at how people behave, and trying to find out why. I've never liked writing first person, confessional songs. So if I'm going to write about my own life, I'll try to find parallels to something universal."
An example is the group's current hit, "Time Stands Still," which started with Peart looking back at his years with the band. "All through the '70s our lives were flying by; we spent so much time on the road that it became like a dark tunnel. You start to think about the people you're neglecting, friends and family. So the song is about stopping to enjoy that; with a warning against too much looking back. Instead of getting nostalgic about the past, it's more a plea for the present."
The song features a guest appearance by Aimee Mann of Boston's 'Til Tuesday, the first outside singer featured on a Rush album. "When the song was still being written, we had the idea that a female voice would be nice; then someone from our office sent along the 'Til Tuesday album. I don't know if she'd heard of us, but we were impressed by her great range -- between the angelic quality, and that emotional contralto she has."
Peart, who writes Rush's lyrics, says that the "Hold Your Fire" songs are unified by an anti-violent theme. "Until the last two albums, we never tried to build a record on a single theme. With 'Power Windows' (1985), the idea was power -- everything from atomic to political power, and on a more personal side, the power of dreams in everyday life.
"this time, I fixed on the idea of people's instincts and temperaments; and the anti-violent side is definitely a part of that. I'm very anti-violence, but I try to avoid the term 'pacifist' because it has too many simplistic, head-in-the-sand connotations. 'Force Ten' is about stripping away the barriers between people, learning to face the world without them. There's one question we ask, in the song 'Lock & Key': Everybody has the urge to destroy, so what can we do about it?"
The group is already planning to start another album next year, although "the only thing we can say for sure about the next album is that there'll definitely be one." Meanwhile, Peart is thinking about his next expedition. "Next year I'd like to go to Mongolia, Zaire and the jungle country -- again, to enjoy life on a rudimentary level, as a totally anonymous person. There's only one way to approach an experience like that: You put your head down, and you do it."