To Be Totally Obsessed - That's the Only Way

By Ula Gehret, Aquarian Weekly, March 9, 1994, transcribed by Fletch

It's that deep, histrionic voice on the radio again, the same one who does ads for Wrestle-Mania and the Nitro-Burning Funny Cars, but without the echoplex this time. "Coming next month to the Smithville Amphitheater, it's the original power trio, the progressive masters of modern music..." he leads, before taking his voice down an octave, "RUSH". Meanwhile, snippets of the band are being played in the background - it's always the same ones, namely "Limelight", "Subdivisions", "Free Will", a recent single such as "Stick It Out", and the inevitable "Tom Sawyer". After baiting the listeners with these catalog tasters, the disembodied pitchman moves in for the kill. "Geddy Lee...Alex Lifeson...and Neil Peart...are Rush, and they've come from Canada to rock you into the 21st Century with this special concert extravaganza. For ticket information, call..."

For two decades the triumvirate knows as Rush have held court over the host of "musician's bands", maintaining a consistent presence during those years with extensive touring along with 18 albums (including four live releases) [sic] and a double-disc collection entitled Chronicles. Each of the members have influenced an untold generation of teenages to not only pick up an instrument, but to hone their skills to the highest possible level through continual practice. It's a testament to the band's resilience that many of those students have already studied, performed, flourished, waned and disappeared altogether, although new disciples are recruited each day. Evidence can be found through sales of the band's latest release for Atlantic Records, Counterparts, an album which minimizes the keyboards so prevalent in their music throughout the 1980s, and returns to the basics of rock: bass, guitar, and drums. They've been criticized and even ridiculed for their uncompromising instrumental virtuosity, but the band have held fast to both their beliefs and, equally as important, their intensely loyal fans. Attesting to that: Counterparts is already a certified Gold album (500,000 copies) and continues to sell briskly. Impressively, they have prospered without the benefit of controversy, hype, and widespread radio and/or video play.

Since The Aquarian was recently given the opportunity to innd, we chose to speak with their revered drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart. Indeed, the Old English definition of his surname says it all: "Expert; skillful; bold; lively". But enough introductory text; after all, you don't read interviews for the commentary between the quotes...

Since Geddy and Alex have the songwriting credit, can I assume they work on material before they give it to you?

Yeah, well, we're both working at the same time at opposite ends of the house. I have a lyric-writing room at one end and they have the little studio at the other end, so we're running back and forth all the time, of course, with feedback, and we both give each other a lot of encouragement and criticism. The lines aren't entirely firmly drawn, but in fact, both jobs are being done separately together.

How long has it been since you've been present at a writing session?

Never, or the words wouldn't get written! (Laughs) I mean, if there's a problem of course we'll be in there working it out, and we do verbalize a lot of things if there's a lyrical construction that I put in that they're having trouble with. Like I say, there is a lot of cross-talk going on all the time, but it's really a job separation thing.

They write with a drum machine?


How do you go about reinterpreting the drum parts to your own liking?

Interesting, because not drummers, of course, they often come up with some very interesting things. Or, on the other hand, if they've got a fresh idea and they don't want to be bothered to program a whole drum part they'll just put in a bouncing bass drum, so that gives me lots of scope to go from there. I do listen to what they've put into it, and while I'm listening to their demo I'm formulating ideas of my own. But then changing hats from lyricist to drummer, I'll go in with the tape by myself and just work over it again and again and try everything that might work.

Has the process gotten easier through the years, knowing what should fit rather than experimenting?

Yeah, but there still has to be a lot of experimentation because I hate to repeat myself, and nothing gives me more pleasure than finding something new. Also, I tend to work with the opposite way of most drummers - I don't start very simply and then build it up; I start with everything I can think of and then weed out what doesn't work or what's intrusive, and transitions I spend a lot of time on. Like a drum part for one song, for instance, will be three days of work.

When you get a creative wave like that with idea after idea, do you ever have the urge to keep going beyond the needs of one album?

No, somehow it is the right amount of work. It's funny, you arrive at certain quantities, like a two-hour show for instance. We don't ever figure out the times to exactly how long a show is going to be, but since we started headlining our shows have always been about two hours and two minutes. I guess it just works out that way, the same as over the years we've evolved the five-minute song. It's just the right length for us to say what we need to say and to package it in the right arrangement. We never aim for it, but it just comes out that way.

Over the years, would you say you've simplified your drum arrangements to something more tasteful and concise?

No, I'd say that's a bit of an illusion. I guess it is progress in a way that the drum parts are more seamless now and smoother, but they're no less complex and certainly no less difficult to play. I was thinking that on stage the last show that "Animate", the opening song on the new album, is just as hard to play as "Tom Sawyer", for instance, which is more of an overtly complex drum part. Over the years I've spent more time on details and ironing out things, so it's a deceptive simplicity, and the way it should be, really. You want to take the extremely difficult and make it look easy.

Was that an intentional change from the point that you had no one left to impress but yourself?

No, I just think I got better, honestly. The same thing could be said about lyrics, that they're less abstract and cerebral and all that, but that's just the learning process. Once you develop your craft, you're able to wield it a lot more skillfully. It's just the obvious result of 28 years of playing drums. In early years it's true that we were learning to play, and the focus for probably our first six albums was "let's get better as musicians". A lot of stuff was just exercises stuck together, but they had a purpose. It was our postgraduate study, and then we went into songwriting and arranging as specific focuses, and now we try to focus on them all, but there has been a definite evolution in the way I approach a song.

I've heard you try and record all of your drum parts within one or two takes.

Yeah, and actually our producer Peter Collins, on the last record, is also of a mind that way, even sometimes stopping me short when he doesn't think I'm quite ready, he'll say, "No, that's it". And he'll be right. The spontaneous bits that I do put in, they also have a certain uneasiness about them because I'm not sure and consequently that can contain excitement by its nature. The risk factor does transmit itself throught the music, so Peter would sometimes try and grab the second run-through before I think it's even a take. When I'm just running it down for the engineer, he'll say, "Okay, that's it". "But... wait a minute!" (Laughs) I like to have the first few takes be the whole song but at the same time I never like to learn the drum part to a point of staleness. I rehearse like crazy for weeks before the record so that I really know the part, but I've learned that I can over-rehearse myself so I therefore leave a few parts of the song unarranged and just let them fall as they may, whether it's a specific drum fill or a transition or an instrumental section, I won't allow myself to work that out.

As the lyric writer you touch on some pretty humanistic topics on Counterparts. Is that in relation to the album's title and concept?

No, that came later, ironically. I wasn't aware of any interconnectedness at the time. They were totally separate little thoughts that had been written down months apart from each other. The notebook that I keep running all the time has little phrases or titles or bits from newspapers or conversations, or whatever, that happened to have sparked my interest at the time. So when I sit down to write lyrics it is an all-day, everyday process, but with a lot of raw material from moments of inspiration. I just start to stitch it together and see what might connect to this, and the theme of dichotomy and the idea of counterparts not being enemies started to be present, but I didn't really have a theme or a title yet until the very end. Even then, Counterparts only came out almost as an accident. I was getting desperate for titles, having gone through tons of suggestions from the other guys and not really lighting on anything satisfactory, so I started free-associating through the lyrics and I pulled the word "counterpart" out of the song "Animate". It just stayed on the list, you know, it was okay but it didn't seem to have enough sparkle or pizzazz to be a title, but I just kept coming back to it. When I looked it up in the dictionary and saw how complex its meaning was, that it meant both an opposite and a duplicate, I thought, "A-ha! That's what I'm writing about here, that's racism, culturalism, men and women, gays and straights, all of us, we're counterparts because we're the same but we're different". I really loved how that tied in to what I was trying to say in so many of the songs and consequently championed it as the title.

Isn't it difficult writing a song as personal as "Nobody's Hero" for someone else to sing?

No, because everyone has a point of relation in it, and it's not totally personal because it began as an abstraction. It began as "What is heroism?" My theme on the title "Nobody's Hero" as it existed in my notebook and in my thoughts, was really juat about, "What is a hero, what is the Western idea of a hero, and is it good?" And ultimately I decided that our idea of a hero is a superhuman being, whether it's an athlete or an entertainer or a politician or whatever, band then the B-part of my thesis was, "Is this a good thing?" And I decided no, it isn't a good thing. It's not good for people to think they are trying to measure themselves against perfect superhuman deities. Much better they should measure themselves against role models or the type of heroes that I outlined in the chorus, which are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, you know, saving a drowning child or bringing in the airplane. These are the kind of things that people actually do, so I thought that was way more valuable to measure yourself against. And then I thought, "What are the other people who have that impact on somebody's life?"

And in my own life, too - for instance, the first verse about the first gay person that I knew and what a great example he set for me for what a gay person is, and prevented me from ever becoming homophobic. And in the second verse I happened to know this family that this terrible tragedy had happened to, and I thought of what a hole in their lives the girl had left behind. These were people who had more impact around than any hero, but at the same time in our Western way, they were nobody's hero. That's the complexities by which I arrive at a personaly story, or another good example would be "Cold Fire" when I wanted to address what love really is.

Along with Frank Zappa, I think that love songs are not only dumb, they're also actively harmful. They invent this fantasy that people expect their own relationships to live up to, and when they don't they result in divorece and low self-esteem and sense of failure and all that, so it's not healthy. Trying to express how a relationship really works, I invented characters and invented a situation and personalized it. Made it like a conversation between two people, of whom the woman is the smarter of the two, and made a complex little personal story. All of that subtext and all of that background that I had to fill in for myself in order to construct this thing hopefully becomes invisible, but at the same time relatable. That's just another essence of what I was saying about drumming, that after years of craft you are able to address these things with more skill and more subtlety.

Ironically, one of the initial criticisms leveled at Rush was your lack of realism combined with an overtechnicality...

(Laughs) Sure! It was baroque, man. No, certainly the music was overdecorated and so were the lyrics, and the lyrics were often dealing with very abstract themes, but where do you start, you know? As a lyricist I started with abstract themes. And I was young, too, and enamored of fantasy and science fictions and all this stuff that maybe I don't have use for any longer, but I did then so it was perfectly sincere. Also, a lot of the grand allegories that I used at the time were exploring - Hemispheres in 1978 was a grand allegory of reason and emotion, and in the Nietzsche terms of Apollo and Dionysius. So yeah, I was very cerebral and very remote from life, but it is still about life and it's a theme that I've been able to personalize over the years and refine my way of showing it and lyricizing it. What's the possible excuse? We were doing what we wanted to do the way we wanted to do it, and the critics be damned, I guess. (Laughs)

Now that you've immersed yourself in personal traits and human emotion, could you ever turn back to fiction?

Ironically, I'm less and less interested in fiction. Even as a prose writer, I do a lot of it in my spare time, and I'm sort of a want-to-be-prose writer and consider myself a hobbyist and a learner in it, and more and more I find reality is as interesting and far more satisfying to write about than are far-flung fictions. That's just a process of life evolution. I've traveled a lot more now and I've learned a lot more about the world and how it works, and that interests me greatly to the degree where abstracts still do, and I still think about them certainly, but at the same time there's plenty of good material out there just in what people do everyday and why.

Does your desire to write stop at short stories or have you attempted anything more ambitious?

I try all kinds of things now, really, from writing the bios that come out with the record to putting my travels into narrative form every time I take an adventure. But these are just ways for me to learn, and what it will come out as in the future doesn't really concerm me at the time. I already have a real job, so to speak (laughs), so I'm very happy just to be doing it and I don't need to publish it. I don't want my learning curve in front of the public anymore. That's a weakness, unfortunately, that you have to face as a musician, that you start out as a teenager and grow up in public. Those years of my life are still in front of people and consequently there's a certain amount of...not embarrassment, I guess, but you kind of wish it would go away. Like anyone would if your mother starts dragging out the pictures you drew and hung on the fridge. No one needs it.

Who are some of your favorite authors lately?

Actually a big discovery of mine was Nadine Gordimer, a South African woman who won the Nobel in '91, but I hadn't read any of hers until lately. In combination with my writing tastes I read a lot of nonfiction lately, a lot of history and philosophy and even psychology. I read a lot of Jung last year and a big book of Nietzsche, the stuff that writing normally leads to. The Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, that was one of my big faves last year. Originally from Sri Lanka, but he's a very high-rated Canadian writer.

There's several African writers that I like...oh, I could go on all day!

What are some of the most rewarding countries you've visited?

West Africa in the general sense is probably my nearest and dearest part of the world. I've made three trips to West Africa and one to East Africa over the years, and definitely will go back again.

Are you fascinated by the cultures more than anything?

Yeah, that's it more than anything. With a little effort and suffering you can find places that are so remote that they are as they always were, and consequently they are pure cultures, which are hard to find anywhere in the world anymore. It's just interesting for me, I'm a Westerner and I have all the Western strengths and weaknesses of ambition and aggerssion and punctiliousness and all that, but at the same time I can learn from other ways of living, and I certainly learned from the Chinese traveling there, and I've learned a lot from the Africans. In the old cliche', it broadens you. When I come to write a song like "Alien Shore" on this record, it is about those differences, or the song "Cut To The Chase" is about ambition. Ambition I put as "the motor of the Western world", because to me what makes Northern European culture different is that level of ambition.

In those countries, do you get involved in a cultural exchange?

Oh, if I can, absolutely! If somebody puts a drum in my hand, you can be sure I'm playing! So I have had some really nice musical experiences...I'll be wandering through a village, and I'll hear a drum coming from somewhere and just wander in and maybe get a chance to play with the village master drummer. I've had some really nice encounters that way, because the last thing they expect is this white tourist on a bicycle to be able to do anything on a drum. I've had some situations where the whole village just gets dancing and laughing and pointing and screaming and just can't believe what they're seeing, but at the same time still having a great time with it.

It's been mentioned that this is your 20th Anniversary tour, and I can't imagine you're too thrilled that people keep reminding you how long you've been together...

Not so much that, I'm very proud of that. Because let's face it, who else has done it? The same members of any band together for 20 years, I think is...if it's not unique, it's nearly unique. No, that's something to be proud of, but I'm always a little suspicious of those tours because they generally tend to be what I call the 'pot of gold' tour, cashing in at the end of the rainbow. And we're not at the bottom of the rainbow yet, so I'm just a bit leery of that terminology because I don't feel that way.

So hopefully we won't see successive tours being billed as the 25th, 30th, 35th, and so on...

(Laughs) Well, you might! I wouldn't discount anything, and we have even talked about doing a specifically 20th Anniversary tour that would be a retrospective where we would just have a lot of fun and go back to our old songs, and bring out the ones that make us laugh and play them! We've talked about doing that just for the fun of it, but at the same time this is not like The Who did a few years ago - I thought that was pretty cynical, and I just don't want to be associated with that kind of mentality.

We're not going to get a Broadway version of Hemispheres?

No! (Laughs) Although I thought Tommy on Broadway was a good move, and I'm sure we're going to see Arthur by The Kinks on Broadway and The Beach Boys on Broadway, they'll do a musical based on "Surf's Up" or something.

God forbid! You've had a varied choice of opening bands in recent years, including Primus, Mr. Big, and VoiVod. How much say do you have in the band that opens for you?

Pretty much total, but the choice is more limited than you would think. When we do start looking into opening acts - this tour is a good example -we are limited by who's available on the road at the moment; who has a record so their record company will pay their expenses, because an opening act doesn't make any we well know the mechanism, because that's how we came up, as an opening act, and it's one reason why we still continue to have them. If we hadn't been able to open shows for four years without radio and without press support, we would have nothing, no avenue of exposure. We do keep that door open, and usually the agency and the record company together will submit a bunch of possibilities, and we'll get a big pile of CDs and videos and go through them, and see who seems to be the most interesting and the most suitable for the band. It's a complicated series of choices, I guess, but ultimately it is our choice.

I hate to ask, but I have to: have you ever gone to see a Rush tribute band?

Oh, God no. Just imagine if there was someone going around doing impersonations of you in front of people. I mean, it is a tribute in the true sense of the word, and bless their hearts and all that, but I would never want to hear it.

Does the touring aspect seem more and more like a job to you with each passing album?

Well, it's a grind, but it always has been a grind. In the early days it was actually worse than it is now, because now at least we control the pacing and the number of shows in a row, and the part of the year in which we tour.

Nonetheless, yes, it is a grind, and it's difficult to be fulfilled by it because it's not like you're doing 100 shows, really, you're doing one show 100 times. The satisfaction level rests only in the rehearsals. In our little rehearsal room at the warehouse in Toronto, suddenly it locks together one day, and that's a joyous feeling. And then getting the first few shows in front of people, too, is a huge challenge and consequently bears its satisfaction. But then after that, it's almost day by day, you know. "What's my goal today? To go on stage and play well". But then I have the same goal again tomorrow, so you don't have the sense of growth and accomplishment so much. Although the growth does feed back, because one of the reasons we continue to tour despite its evils is that it's good for us! It does make us better and it does make us tighter, and it forces us out into the wide world so it prevents us from getting jaded and hidebound in our ways, and isolated in the band circle. All those things are healthy things, and my quote in the bio about touring was absolutely true, that the only thing worse than touring is not touring as far as a band goes. And also that it's like medicine - it tastes awful, but it works. (laughs)

Do you find the creative process more rewarding than performing?

It is. Working together, when it's just the three of us out in the country working on new songs, you have the satisfaction of creating something. You have controlled circumstances that aren't chaotic, and if something breaks down in the middle of a song, you just stop. You don't have to go, "Oh God, what do we do?" On stage every night, the amount of mental calculations that have to be gone through just to adapt to changes or variations in the night is enormous, and it's exhausting. Physically, too, that two-hour show for me as a drummer is extremely athletic, and definitely akin to a 100-mile bicycle ride or a marathon run. Mentally and physically it's extremely taxing, and often times I've considered, "I could do without this", especially in the middle of a show that's not going well! But in the cold light of reason, when it comes to the end of an album you think, "Are we going to tour or not?" I've been tortured by that decision, I don't mind admitting, it's a really hard one to make. But ultimately my subconscious makes up my mind for me, and one morning I wake up and realize, "Kid, you've got to do it". And I shoulder the load and struggle on.

So you think the band will end when the thrill of recording and playing no longer outweighs the toll it takes on you personal and/or family lives?

I would think that, to a degree, but there's the spark of excitement. Really, the whole motor of the thing is the songwriting time. This time, for instance, for the first few days it was hard to get rolling, and that's when you worry because if things don't get rolling naturally, there's no way to force it. But after those few days, suddenly it was like a bomb went off. Geddy and Alex got some music going in the music-writing part of the building and they got all excited, so suddenly everything was changed and you knew it was going to be alright.

Is it easier for you to continue knowing that the band is no longer necessary for each of you to earn a living, or does that make it more difficult at times?

Well, you still have to find the challenges and the rewards in life. I'm not the kind of person that would be happy just to retire to the golf course. As I was saying about the intensity of touring, it's hard to replace that in your life, or even the intensity of the creative process. Barring the fact of interpersonal disagreements - which tears a lot of bands up, probably more than being creatively drained does - the fact that we get along removes that urgency to it, so it really is just a question of the pursuit of happiness. What's going to make me the happiest? Working in this band will. So I consciously make that decision and then whatever it takes to follow that goal is the price you pay. I just accept that as the cost.

Do you have any follow-up goals?

Ultimately, I've a lot of other interests, certainly, but nothing as supreme as this. When you start out with a youthful obsession, nothing will ever really replace it as a long-term. That's another reason why I probably wouldn't let go of it until failing physical powers or simple inability to face the hardships anymore would be the turning point...or that loss of excitement that I mentioned before. I just can't imagine a goal as big as this one has been in my whole life, basically. Twenty-eight years of my life have been spent as a drummer and as part of a band, so nothing will ever have the same focus as that. but I enjoy writing, I like traveling, I like bicycling and motorcycles, I like art, I like reading - there's plenty of life to do, so I know that I can retire happy and play for a living, but it'll never be the same thrust or the same hunger as drumming and music can be.

Are there any music-related plans beyond the band?

Pleasurable ones, but not with the same fire. For instance, I'm hoping to put together a Buddy Rich tribute album sometime in the next year or so. I'm getting a lot of the pre-eminent drummers in the world in to play an arrangement of one of Buddy Rich's pieces, and then put it out as a tribute to him. That's the kind of thing I would like to do just for personal satisfaction, because I think it deserves to be done and I'd rather have me do it than someone else!

That's one little project, and I'm always working on something different. Right now, I'm working on playing brushes, which I have no use for in Rush, but it just intrigues me as part of the history of drumming and one of the crafts of playing drums. The same reason I play with marimbas or with congas and hand drums, all these things are part of drumming so I explore them, but the drum set is my thrust.

Can't things like this, the interview process, get particularly taxing?

No, that's an entirely willing thing obviousl, or I wouldn't continue to do it. We do a job division thing where the other two guys usually deal with radio or with TV, and I do the journalism angle because I enjoy doing it and because it keeps me sharp. When people like you are tossing questions at me, I have to constantly re-examine my premises and figure out how to justify a certain decision or course of action in words, which I consider a valid challenge. So on that count alone, interviews are worth doing. Also the reason why I choose the journalism side is because you can have an extended conversation like this, rather than being on the radio and going, "Okay! How's the tour going? Where'd you play last? Where are you going next? Okay, we gotta go to commercial now, thanks for coming by!" When it got to that level on the radio, I said, "There's no joy in this for me", so I stopped doing it. If journalism interviews started to become like that, I would stop too, but honestly I don't foresee that. Journalists, by their nature, tend to be a deeper class of people - no flattery intended.

None taken! (laughs) Do you ever find publicity as a battle of the public's right-to-know versus invasion of privacy?

Yeah, the public has no right to know (laughs), and the desire to know is one thing, and I do value the chance to speak to people and transmit the truth...that's the reason why I write the bios every time, rather than having some record company promo writer do it, because I want to get the facts out. I communicate through our fan club still, and any opportunity like this nterview where you can tell the real story and especially demythologize the whole thing. I really hate the part of the machine that's created the myth of entertainers and "rock stars". I think it's not only stupid, but evil. I've done everything I can do to fight against that over the years.

It's true, because you have remained fairly well out of the public eye for a band of your stature.

Yeah, as much as possible. The flashbulbs and video camera side of it definitely leaves me cold.

What of your devout fans, particularly the drum students, whose devotion borders on obsessional? Does such fanaticism make you uneasy?

If there's a younger drummer that's obsessed about drumming, and he happens to use me for a role model, then certainly no harm is done. And if he's just an imitator then he'll be dead in the water already, so again there's no damage done. But to be totally obsessed with music, that is the only way. That's entirely alright. As far as fastening their adulation on me, it's partly being unformed and uninformed. I know that I've learned from so many other drummers, and I'm just carrying the torch of all those people that I've learned from and the values they've set for me, embarrassing, and harmful on both sides, so I try to defuse and debunk as much of that as possible. But if a young drummer is learning from what I do, and I've learned from older drummers before me, then that's the way it's supposed to be.