Being on the road for over twenty years and still regarded as one of the best songwriters and most innovative drummers: Neil Peart of Rush. A long conversation with an intellectual in rock music.
After about eight years of taking interviews I finally made it: an interview with Rush-drummer Neil Peart. Personally I was thrilled because after one-hundred-and-more interviews his name was pretty high on my "wish list." It is difficult to explain really; it is mainly a kind of feel. Neil Peart is a solitary person, a wanderer, an explorer. Neil Peart is a writer and an erudite man. Neil Peart is a gentleman: polite, modest, obliging. He will not mutter off-handed empty clichés about the success of his new record or deliver insipid anecdotes. He writes lyrics which are a rendering of his restless mind, of someone whose life doesn't end by beating at pots and pans or by a hall with thousands of fans. That makes him so unique; he stands with both feet in life and he knows his position; he encourages people to think without preaching. Not that I am personally infatuated by this man, however. For those who are not on the same frequency he is an arrogant, haughty intellectual who isn't exceedingly beloved by the Rush crew, according to a dragging conflict with one of his roadies to whom he hadn't spoken a single word throughout the whole tour. He ignores people who in his opinion refuse to use their brains, an attitude which is revealed in his lyrics. Nevertheless I adhere to his earlier mentioned positive and interesting sides in full. And above all, Peart is of course one of the most brilliant drummers in the world, a man who is being appreciated because of his innovative qualities. Not that he really agrees with this:
In any case I'm not innovative, but I think I'm adventurous. But in every case they come from somewhere else. I always twist things; like I'll learn something from a Nigerian drummer or a reggae- or a jazz-drummer or whatever, and I'm not allowed to imitate. I'm not allowed just to copy somebody else's thing but I'll take it and put a twist on it. And it's an influence then, instead of an imitation. Then I combine them together, so in the same song I might be playing a West-African pop beat, a hard rock drumbeat and a jazz click, all blended together. So for me, I know that there're all combinations of things and if there's a uniqueness, it's just in daring to combine all these things and being adventurous enough to find them and blend them together. I'm just an example of an openness and willing to experiment. Innovation isn't really a part of how I consider myself because I know nothing is new. You just combine things and bring it forward and I think it's certainly true among modern musicians today. That's what everybody is doing: gathering up the past and never looking back but still keeping it with them.
There was an interview with the drummer of Faith No More in Modern Drummer a month or so ago, and it was great how educated he was in the history of drumming, the history of jazz and music and how it's all come forward to today. And yet his drumming is absolutely modern. Another drummer I really like is the drummer of Soundgarden and his style of drumming is very nineties. But it encapsulates the history that all of us have been gathering up along the way. There's a friend of mine in America who writes on drums and drummers, and he has a little column called Tribal Elders, and it's about the old drummers, all the people who pass down the wisdom. It is just like that in the tribal sense of the Shaman, who has all the magic of the tribe and he passes it on and on, and maybe a little more is gathered along the way. But it's still an evolutionary thing and certainly drumming is like that. And I think that rockmusic is in its purist sense is like that too. New things came along in the seventies: new wave and all the reggae and ska influences came into it and they changed it forever. And through the eighties there were a lot of world-beat influences, a lot of African music and again more reggae and more Caribbean styles like Soca, and different and less well known styles than reggae. And everybody learns these things and becomes familiar with them; dancers learn how to dance to them, drummers learn how to play them and it all becomes part of the musical ... Zeitgeist is the word I like: the spirit of the age. And it can't go back, it's pointless to have a fifties-revival, a sixties-revival and now there're even having seventies-revivals and bringing back disco and all that. I mean it's all fun, it doesn't hurt anybody, but let's not pretend it's the direction of music. It's not, it's nostalgia. But in the purist sense, like I say, all these people bring it forward.
Particularly in the last year, there are so many good bands coming out with a high standards of musicianship and everything. I don't know how they survived the late eighties because it was so dry then. I only realize now, looking back, how bad it was. You didn't have to be a good musician, most bands didn't have musicians, it was all machinery, that was the spirit of the age at the time. Everybody wanted mechanical music. I thought what are the musicians doing now, how were they keeping it moving. And in fact they were because like last year suddenly all these bands started to come out. And a lot of especially American bands right now which is interesting to see too. America is leading rock again. They started it but then I think very often Europe takes over because of the refinements and Europe is very good at blending styles too. Were American stand to be more pure: "here it is'. So a lot of times America start it and then it comes to Europe and they dress it all up. And it's good, I often tend to like European more. But in this case there is no question to me that American bands are leading the way. It's such a level of musicianship, top to bottom: the songwriting is good, the lyrics are good, the guitar player is good, the drummer is good... There is no getting away with a weak link anymore. Right now all these bands like Pearl Jam, like Soundgarden, there is a new band I like in America called Live, have you heard of them at all? Again same thing: great songs, great songwriting, great lyrics, great drummer, great bass player ... everything! Because I am so used to making allowances. I'll buy a record and I'll think: well, the songs are good, the drummer is a little lame, the lyrics are cheap... but it's something to listen to. I've a hunger always for new things, so I'm willing to make allowances for. But lately I have found these completely fulfilling bands coming out of America and Canada that are just like "yes, righteous!" It is so good to see and like I say, they survived a very dark period in the late eighties. If you think of all the pop-rock groups and the fake-metal bands and all that... It was very dark, it seemed at the time like there was still interesting music to listen to, but looking back compared to now it was very bad.
What is so special or different with the drumkit you use now?
Basically at the start of Roll The Bones I decided that I wanted to get away from familiar patterns. So I physically changed my drum-setup around pretty radically and put the drum which used to be here over there, the one which used to be there is now over here. So whatever I did, if it was the same move, it would sound different. And also with drums in different places it would encourage me to do different things which worked great too. So the actual number and choice of drums is the same, they're just all switched around. And electronically, ironically on the Roll The Bones record there is almost no drum sampling at all, except for in the rap section of "Roll The Bones", which are electronic drums just for the character of being what it is. So actually in all those songs that's the only electronic drums I play. So when I am playing triggers in the new songs, it's all covering keyboards and covering samples that the other guys are too busy to get to, something I can do and take away their weight off of them a bit. And the older songs of course when I did use quite a bit of sampling and stuff live, I'm reproducing that but when we were setting up in the studio for Roll The Bones it was pretty much just a little drumkit and that was nice to do that.
Do you like things like demonstrations and drum clinics?
No. I'm not fond of doing them from a personal point of view. I have tried it twice just to say that I've done it and to find out what it was like - and also it's a major challenge. On the one-to-one basis I am very comfortable but with a group of people I'm not. I am very uncomfortable with it. But I tried it and it gave me no reward other than being able to face those people who do it. That was my only reward and that's fulfilled by doing it once. And I honestly don't think it's good for drummers - not that it's bad for them but I don't think it's valuable. Now when young drummers have an access to so much in videos, teaching videos, demonstration videos, clinic videos, videos of drumdays and transcriptions of sheet music and all kinds of learning aids...but really if you've got these things inside of your head, you don't need those. A good teacher is important, I will always recommend that, that everyone would start with a good teacher. You should learn to read if you can because you might need it. All those fundamental things you should learn: your twenty-six rudiments. I don't knock education by any means, but I just think it goes too far. Anyone who can't learn with their ears is not going to learn from a video, or from a drum clinic or from sheet music - it just won't help. It is good to know those things and maybe it can't hurt either, but just for me I don't think it's worth it. If I can teach anything, it's by example and the same way I learned by playing along to top 40 radio and whatever song came on the radio, I had to play to it. So that was the best experience of all, I didn't have any choice. It wasn't like I could put on my favorite record and just play along at all. I just had a little plastic radio and whatever song came on, I had to learn it. That served me so well, having a good teacher and then just having to play whatever music was thrown at me, basically. Where now people tend to sit down, "so and so is my favorite drummer, so I'm just gonna practice along with that" ... well, it's not right, it might be fun, but it's not a way to learn. So to me, you have the best drummers in the world available for you on CD or cassette; listen to it, that's the best way in the world to learn, I think. If you want to learn what other people are doing, if you want to learn your own thing, you don't need that anyway.
You write all the lyrics for Rush. Are these sometimes subject of discussion with the others?
It's never that serious really. I get ahead of them. I am very conscientious and I start early, like I'll take a week in the summer and get some lyrics written and then a week before we all start...because I hate to come in with nothing. So I have to come in with a whole bunch of stuff. So basically I just keep handing them stuff as it's finished. And whatever out of the stack they have, whatever gets them the most inspired, is what they work with. So there are leftovers, but they're not rejects as such and I never take them that way. Sometimes I try an experiment or an approach, creating a character or a scene or whatever, and that's good enough, whether it goes any farther. It's a treat if it does, because I love to hear a song for the first time, when suddenly those words really come to life. So there is certainly a special moment there, but if it doesn't happen then I just recycle them; if something doesn't get used then I steal all the best bits and use them again. So there's never a negative thing where they just shake their heads. And in fact most often it's a positive thing when I come in with something and they say, "well, we see where you're getting at, but it's a little unclear here and here, and maybe you should try something like this." And they'll give me a suggestion that is just like "pling!" and I'll run to my room and work on it. So it's almost never a frustration the other way around, either. They play me a piece of music and I'll be like: "well I wonder why they are excited about it." And I try to figure the positive sense first and then "okay, I see what you are getting at, but maybe if it was different rhythmically or this cord-change came a little differently or that cord is a little too ordinary." I make the same criticisms to them and then we all get excited because everyone is working together at it. Instead of being critical it's all being helpful. That's the difference and that's certainly why we're still here together today.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov died recently. Has he ever been of interest to you?
I've read quite a lot of sci-fi, especially in my younger years, and I think that his Foundation-series is among the pinnacles of speculative fiction writing. I rate him very highly for being a "thinking" writer.
Do you still read a lot?
Yes, I read a lot but inevitably if you read in one field, you soon exhaust the best of it, so you move on. Lately I've been reading non-fiction. I just finished reading the writings of Carl Jung for about two months but it was worth it. I just finished a British writer called Bruce Chatwin. He is a traveler like me. He travels everywhere and gets into all kinds of trouble. His book Songlines is about Australia and the Aboriginal way of mapping out their countryside by singing, and they could walk along and sing the names of the trees and mountains and guide themselves across the whole continent. And I've started with another Australian writer called Patrick White, who was a Nobel-prize winner in '73 or something. I guess I read four of his novels and they are just gems of truth and beauty.
The sci-fi element has disappeared out of your lyrics over the years, let's say since Hemispheres.
I used it so little for how much attention it gets payed to it, and it was always just a vehicle. There are really maybe thirty minutes of music that had anything to do with science fiction at all: 2112 and Cygnus X-I I suppose. But in both cases it was a phase that I was going through of using allegory and characters as symbols and all that, which I seemed to grew out of, because I wanted to write about people as people and not as symbols. Nobody is a hero, nobody is a villain, everybody is a lot of each. At one point I was interested in clarifying my thoughts on things and thinking about the difference between reason and passion. So I used symbols for them and put them in a speculative world. But as in most cases, as with Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, or Ray Bradbury, they are not writing about science and they are not writing about symbols or robots, they are writing about people in extraordinary circumstances. Which is what good lyrics are always about. The drama of it, of someone you can relate to as a person getting caught up in something that is difficult to deal with. For me, that was just a period I went through and I learned from it and grew out from it. As you said, it was a long time ago and it wasn't very much work to begin with. I was never a science fiction writer at all, it was just a vehicle for a while. The same as before that I was all caught up in fantasy because of the decorative aspects of words and truly in the Gothic sense of architecture with lots of curly Q's and architraves and stuff, but at a certain point you strip it down and all you want is walls and a roof.
Do you have aspirations to become a writer yourself?
It's one of those dreams like "I'd like to be an actor", "I'd like to be a writer," that I used to entertain as a fantasy and then it became a reality and I realize that I have a lot to learn. I sat down seriously to learn prose writing and practiced a lot and made little books that weren't to be published but just for me and my friends, basically. Books about my travels in China and Africa, written as a travelogue. So this is the learning process. I got hold with an editor to work with, who could tell me where I went wrong or where I was writing clichés. All the things that you have to learn in the art of writing, to stringing sentences together, just for clarity sake, for decoration sake, for beauty sake, all the things that prose can accomplish. You can't just know, you can't just do, you have to learn them. The same as drumming. Just like everything else, now that I know better. How many times do you hear somebody say "I'd like to be a writer," in a fantastic sort of way, and that's all it is. It is a fantasy because no-one is born to be able to do anything, really, you have to learn it. That's what I have been doing for probably the last five years pretty seriously. But it is a difficult thing because Rush is a total commitment for me, especially in the last couple of years it's been a sort of reaffirmed commitment too, that all of us are really focused on the band now. And I know that prose writing demands the same kind of commitment and I am not prepared to give it that. So I have to accept it as a hobby that I am very serious about, getting better at, and learning from and learning to do and all that, but it can't be a focus as yet. Maybe some day it will but right now I'm happy.
Though you've fulfilled at least one fantasy: you are a rock musician and you tour around the world.
Yes, it's funny. Actually I cut out a little clipping; it was very interesting because it was about male and female ideals of what they would like to be in the world. For men it was pretty well split into thirds: one-third would be an athlete, one third would be a musician, and one third would be a business leader. And among women: one-third would be an author, one-third would be a singer and one-third would be a doctor. So one-third of the surveyed thought they'd like to be a musician. Obviously like everything else, it's way more complicated than it seems to be, and really the fulfillment doesn't come from all of that. It's the time when the three of us just go away and work together and we're working on new songs and it's all fresh and creative: that's the real joy time and the real time of peace and satisfaction. Glamorous it obviously is not, and like most seemingly glamorous things that are not at all, behind them there can be something real that is good. Like actors find in their world, atletes find in their world the thrill of getting in shape to go out there to run your routes or play your game or whatever.
It's like that in music too. The satisfaction is like that. But they're not appearent and they're not glamorous. For me, a part of the thing I like is that I love rehearsing for a tour. And I spend two weeks just by myself every day, until my hands are bleeding. But I love the feeling of getting in shape and sweating and all the dirty side of it that no-one would consider glamorous because it is just me in room, playing along to a tape, literally until my hands are swelling and throbbing. Where the satisfaction lays is never where the perception is. There is no satisfaction in being famous by any means. To me the ideal thing in the world is to be rich and anonymous. Businessmen for instance, who have been successful, have the total freedom and independence that wealth does bring. I don't knock it, I love having that freedom of doing what I want and going where I want. Having that, plus anonymity, to me is the dream. Especially for film stars, they have nothing, no matter where they go. Michael Jackson went to Africa and still had caused a big fuss. And I can go to Africa and I am nobody, so I bless that at least.
Are you such a fitness person as you are taken for?
To a degree. I am not fanatical about anything. I like my vices. I smoke and drink and eat bad food and everything. But at the same time I like long-distance cycling, long-distance cross-country skiing, long-distance swimming, but they have all come out of drumming. When I was a kid I wasn't good at anything. But drumming gave me disciple and I found that I could swim for a mile and I could cross-country ski all day and suddenly all these things were easy for me. So ironically, drumming let me do those things but those things have in turn helped my drumming as well. When I'm not drumming I'm doing these things so I'm staying fit for it. Like I said, the same time I ride my bicycle all day and get off and have a large whisky and a sigarette, that is my reward.
You appear to find out a different technical way to play your complex music live as complete as possible.
Our rule of thumb is that any samples or anything like that are physically triggered by us. Nothing on tape, nothing triggered by the soundman. Geddy and Alex have footpedals and keyboards, and there is of course a lot of sampling going in, but it's all physical. I have a little pad over here that goes right to the keyboards for instance, and I'm sending off keyboard samples, all my little triggers, some of them are drumsounds, some of them are keyboard sounds, same with the vocal sounds and anything like that. Everthing results from a physical "boom'. It is just like playing a part then, because you have to say "okay, if I start this now, boom," it has to be on time, and get it on, turn it off, put it in the right place. When we start rehearsing for a tour it's like choreographing, "can you hit this pedal then," then I hit that one then, and if neither of the other guys can get it it's "Neil, you get that one," so then they send it over to me. The only two things that are on tape in the whole show are Aimee Man's voice in "Time Stand Still"; that's why I have the headphones to be in sync with the film, and then in "Roll The Bones" the electronic voice for the rap, for the same reasons. But there's nothing else on tape but those voices and those are things that we have the faces up there, and the only way they could be there is on video obviously, but otherwise everything else in the whole show is a physical playing of samples. That is where we draw the line. For us, it is cheating to have it on tape. It might sound better and it might be the only way some bands can reproduce their records, well then they shouldn't make the records that way as far as I'm concerned. In the early days, we used to choreograph our music. For instance in the older days, before MIDI and everything, when it was just like going from a 12-string to a 6-string on a double-neck or something, we would arrange the music to allow for that. Or if Geddy had to get from bass to keyboards, we would leave a bar in between where he'd finish on the bass and then have time to get to the keyboards. We would build our music to play it live, because obviously we have always been much more of a live band then anything else, so that was the main thing. And then after a while we found that a little too constructive but at the same time sampling and MIDI and everything came along and allowed us to do so much more live, with us physically controlling it. Not being a slave to a tape or not having to play to a clicktrack all night. That would be so awful. Especially for us.
We're at the stage now where we're trying to introduce more improvisation into our live-show. Right from the beginning we changed the arrangements of "Dreamline." We changed the arrangements of "Bravado," put a whole improvised section on the end that we just created in the rehearsal room and then built up over the course of the tour. And the whole beginning of the instrumental with Geddy's bass part, these things can be different for us every night. Where for a long time we were dedicated to reproducing the record live perfectly so we didn't mess up things, now we know we can improvise. It took us fifteen years to be able to, but now we can. And so we think, "enough with that, let's have some freedom, let's have some surprises." So we set out right away with the newer songs to change them and make them new and make them allow us to play them different every night. Not have to be glued to that sameness. So that was an important step for us and it's pushing us into a new direction that will change us forever. That little decision in the rehearsal room, "let's change it!" And that was like a moral turning point I think for us, that from now on we'll never be satisfied with just the record or just the show, being the same as the night before. Now in small ways they're never the same. Things that get introduced one night that stay forever, so you might hear two shows in a row and they seemed the same but by the third show something new is happening and if you see us a month apart then it's like a hundred different things have happened. That's really exiting for us in a life sense that we've seen it in ourselves that we're enjoying playing live way more now. It's not such an struggle to reproduce. Now it's a struggle to have fun and the show is constructed so that all the hard bits are at the beginning and all the technology, all the clicktrack, all the sampling stuff and all that, is over early. Later in the show, the older songs and the less keyboard-type songs and that...we're free and the whole show just gets lighter, and the audience feels it, the whole building just suddenly "wow'. The responsibility is off our shoulders now, we can just have fun and the show is constructed purposely that way. It's a thing we learned by accident but we were smart enough to say "this is a good idea! let's get the hard stuff over with" so the later part of the show is just fun.
The whole medley started out as "how many songs can we get into this thing?" and we took snippets here and snippets there but again in the final analysis it was great for us, we have a lot of fun playing it every night. It's great for the audience, the responsibility and demands on us are less tense so we have more fun and everybody is exited. So those are important things in changing the way the band works and keeping us growing in different ways and they will continue and change the future for us as well.
Over the last few years it's become very apparent that Rush is a major influence to many bands in symphonic and related music.
What happens is that our fans have always been a lot of musicians because our music is intricate and extraverted musically. There are only three of us so we all get to play a lot. So naturally it does appeal especially to young musicians who like all that technique. A lot of those young musicians now have grown up and are in bands. We have noticed the change of perception, only in the last couple of years, that suddenly we have received respect. Because our fans have grown up not only to become musicians but also now they're critics, they're working for record companies. Five years ago we were a pariah, we were like a dinosaur, outcast weirdoes, and there was no respect for us at all. I'm not being exclusive there, but outside of that circle among other bands, other musicians, it was like: "Rush? Get out of here!" But suddenly it has happened that even people who haven't been influenced by us musically, represent the example that we set: "there is a band who did it on their own terms, exactly as they wanted to and didn't let the record company tell them what to do."
And that was of course what happened in the late eighties: every band came along as a record company puppet. The A&R-man was in the studio, telling them what to record, what songs to do, what cover-versions to do, and what songs should go on the record because they are the most commercial. That was the name of the game in the late eighties. And it was frightening for me because I thought: "isn't anybody else gonna do what they want here?" And that's what turned around. And then suddenly bands like Living Colour started to come along and their guitar player was one guy who said to me that we were an inspiration to them, not so much musically, but just the fact that there was a band who did what they want, the way they wanted to do it. I've heard the same thing too from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and these kinds of bands. I don't think they have been influenced by us musically but we stood as an example, of someone who did what they have done, just did their thing. So that is very gratifying and like I say, I have no presumptions about the musical legacy that Rush represent at all, but that was one role that I wish we could be an example for.
All bands out there: don't copy anybody and don't do what anybody tells you, just do it. If you've got something that is sincere and unique, like Nirvana is a perfect example, you couldn't have predicted that band would become big. I responded to them as soon as I saw half of the video Smells Like Teen Spirit last summer, and immediately thought "wow, who is this?" I got all excited about them and in fact I tried to get them as an opening act for us on the tour. And then suddenly "boom!" the band is number one everywhere. You could never have predicted that. I thought "this is some little odd new underground band that I'm gonna like and nobody else will." But they had such conviction and that was so fresh and real. All these bands like from Guns 'N' Roses on: they are real, they're doing what they are and what they want to do. And that's so great, whether I like them or not, it's like: "yes!" We have every respect for that. And like I say, especially in the dark days of four years ago, nobody was, so that's really what's important I think. Yes, there are influences but most people tend to grow out of that. The guys in Primus for instance, grew up playing Rush music and cover bands and stuff, but they are themselves. They are very strong personalities. Les especially has a very strong vision and a very great sense of humour and there is no way Primus sounds like us. We represented something in their growing up period as an example, as a role-model, which is very healthy. But it wasn't a heroic or slavish imitation, beyond the learning stage, after that they are themselves. So in the long run there's no danger of that because no person with a creative vision of their own is going to be imitative. They might start off with roll models, just like I did learn how to play drumming from other drummers. But in a fact I never wanted to be those guys, I just wanted to learn from them and then go on to someone else after.