TORONTO - This weekend, Canada's longest-running band kicks off its first tour in three years, in Albany, N.Y. Coming on the heels of Test For Echo, arguably the band's strongest album in 15 years, it signals a period of renewed activity for guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, and lyricst/drummer Neil Peart.
We recently had the opportunity to speak to Peart by phone from his home, and ended up in a lengthy discussion about everything from the new album to the Internet, CD-ROMs, Stanley Kubrick - and the Monster Mash.
Here's how it went.
I've been reading a couple of interviews with Alex and Geddy over the summer, and one of the things Alex was quoted as saying was, during that first week when you reconvened you wondered about the future and you thought maybe this was going to be the last Rush record. Did you sense any of that when you were first finding your way again after being apart for a bit?
Peart: No, but I must admit it's different circumstances for each of us though, of course, it's easier for me because I just try and have some work under development before I get there so I don't have to face a blank page. So I kind of work on my own. I was concerned because of the way they chose to work this time. Geddy and Alex were working on the pieces and then setting them aside, so I wasn't hearing any finished songs. I'm used to hearing that, within a week or so, there will be a couple of finished things they will be playing for me to get discussing and arranging on, but they didn't go that way so I was concerned only that I wasn't hearing anything and I wasn't hearing any of the words being sung to know if they worked or not as lyrics and I wasn't hearing any music to know what I was going to be putting drum parts to and with the whole re-development I've been through in my drumming in the past couple of years, that was really important to me. So I had that feeling but, certainly I didn't have any sense of negativity at all at this time. I think that was probably more true last time, that there was more friction and frustration, where this time everybody was glad to be back there and just finding a new chemistry I think, that was what was maybe triggering Alex's apprehension, because they did move to a new way to work and they hadn't worked together for awhile, and in the meantime Alex has done his own record (with his band, Victor), so everything was different between them, so I think that's probably a factor from his point of view.
So what does happen when all three of you actually get into the same house, if not perhaps the same physical space, on the first day back after a very long layoff?
Peart: Everybody starts sorting out their stuff. Alex gets the whole recording situation working because he's the musical scientist and so he'll be getting all that going. Geddy will be fooling around with keyboards and getting all that working. Just gradually the work schedule will evolve where I pretty well start working right away. When I get up, I like to get my brain working when it's still good, and it's the same with them. They'll have breakfast and go straight into the studio and start working on musical bits. So the process is clear that when you wake up in the morning you know what you have to do, but the ways in which to go about that are the things that sometimes change. But as a general thing, in the past I would be hearing songs after about a week or so and we'd discuss them and say perhaps this part could be stronger or this part be shorter or longer ... there is a lot of talking with us, but it's worked so well after all these years that we can talk about a song and never play it and know how it's going to come out.
How do you think that different way of working manifested itself in the way things turned out on this record ?
Peart: I don't think it did. It just kept things special for them because the arrangements and all those little divisions do get tedious and they slow down the momentum of working on fresh new things. And that's what they want to keep going: work on something fresh, put it aside, work on something fresh, put it aside and stitch them all together later which, at that point, once they had a number of things in rough shape, then we got together and started assembling some of the pieces and going through that process.
You certainly don't hear the "stitching" on the album.
Peart: It's really not like that. I'll go in at night, if I can get into the studio, and work on my drum parts by myself and then I'll play a new drum part to Geddy and he'll play with it on his own and make a new bass part that responds to my input. So there is a kind of a slow improvisation going on, is the way I describe it. It's very organic, but at the same time I always used to hate the feeling of sitting in the studio and everyone trying to learn the song at the same time, trying to respond to each other's parts and communicate your part to the other players and trying to learn the song. And you always think you're taking too long or you're the one that's holding it up or ruining it or whatever. I really used to dislike that process. It was very painstaking. It would arrive at a good result, of course, but it was just too stressful. We eventually started spending time where I could go in every night once the songs are rolling out and drum every night and work on one song, the next night a different song, and keep the rotation going and keep passing new versions over to the other guys so they can criticize or respond or re-record their part. All through the whole process these days there is this kind of improv going on that I really love. I can go in there and just experiment, try anything in the world that might work without fear of messing someone else up or calling down criticism on myself for a part that doesn't work or isn't right for their part or something like that. I just prefer the politeness and the focus of it because I do love to rehearse. I'm one of the few musicians I know that really does love to rehearse. I'm right now, these afternoons, rehearsing on my own just going over the new songs and re-learning some of the old ones and preparing for when the whole band starts. It's just something I really like, whether I'm doing a recording, or a tour. I really like preparing by myself, even preparing for the preparation, rehearsing for the rehearsal. I just like it. I got into the mode the last couple of years of practising every day anyway, so that's become just a part of my life in that way, just to step it up a notch towards the tour, in this case, or a few months back to step up my rehearsing towards the goal of recording. As you know, there are different ways you can go about that, and it's become popular in the years for people to record at home. I just love the step. It's like the stage, going into the recording studio and today we make the record, that really is something special for me and puts me to a height of concentration, and usually the performance too, that I just wouldn't reach in our rehearsal room.
You touched earlier on the evolution of your drumming. I didn't expect your drum parts on this album to be like the big band music you did on the Buddy Rich tribute album, but it's interesting just to hear, for example, how the Counterparts album starts out in terms of your drum part (loud and thundering) and how the Test For Echo record starts out (subtle and intricate).
Peart: It is very relevant just exactly in that way, because Counterparts was when I was starting to get frustrated and feel rigid. Now, my impression of that record is worse than the record is. I went and listened to it the other day because I was starting to learn those songs, and I was thinking this doesn't sound as bad as I thought. But I was down on myself for this rigidity, the time-keeping to me was - as it got more perfect over the years - metronomic, so that's different. One of the things I did this time was I worked with a teacher who specializes in that kind of thing, like a tennis coach would, watching the way you serve and your backhand and correcting and suggesting other more thorough ways. I just really started all over again, setting up my drums differently, holding the sticks differently, different heads, everything that I could possibly change, I changed. For instance, in drumming there is a matched grip and the traditional grip for the left hand where the stick is cradled in the hand. And where I played matched grip for the last 30 years, with my teacher's urging and of my own wish to really go all out and reinvent things, I went back to the traditional grip. I just devoted a lot of practice time over the last couple of years, so it has given me a lot more fluidity. So it's not what you hear at the top of the song - it wasn't really influenced by the "big band" or the "jazz" approach, but merely the facility of so much practising in last couple of years. So I have a new sense of time, I have a much better pulse sense of time now, as opposed to being rooted to the linear, metronomic time.
Geddy has said that he doesn't think there is a theme to this album, that it's much more a collection of songs then the last few a been, but added "Neil might beg to differ."
Peart: No, I don't think I would. You know sometimes it does happen that the themes would appear after the fact when I haven't been cognizant of them.
But you don't think that the metaphor in the title track - which you say means "Hello is anybody out there" - that you didn't consciously try to develop that?
Peart: No, but I do think it crops up definitely from time to time here and there, no question of it, but that wasn't conscious any more than in Counterparts. That whole dichotomy metaphor was not consciously planned for it, it just seemed to be appearing. I find it's inevitable when you're writing a group of songs in a particular period of time that they reflect your state of mind, the things that are on your mind. I keep collections of little titles and ideas that I like, so it really reflects a couple of years worth of thinking, reflecting and collecting so it's inevitable that there should be some commonality, but I am surprised sometimes how strong the connections are, and that one that you mentioned is definitely germane to this one.
Well I think the other subtext is perhaps denying the concept of destiny and embracing the idea of taking your fate in your own hands, even more so then you've written on some of the other albums.
Peart: Roll The Bones was definitely devoted to that. It's an interesting thought.
There are a couple of specific places where you're talking about making the most of the time we have on this earth almost to the point where one might assume you had some personal epiphany over the last year and a half.
Peart: No not at all, in fact I can trace all those sources of those things. A friend of mine once wrote me a letter saying that he'd realized life wasn't about how much you could get out of a day, but how much you can pack INTO it, and I thought that was really cool and I used that of course in the song Time And Motion - the boxcars in a train/Fill them up with precious cargo lines - and the other one, Resist, has a bit of that flavor. But of course I took the Oscar Wilde quote ("I can learn to resist anything but temptation") and added that I can learn to resist. In other words, the exercise of will is the weapon against futility or helplessness. Maybe I can't resist temptation, but I can learn to get along with what I don't know, and I thought that was a really important distinction. In the case of Half The World, there was a line I ran into somewhere that said, "Half the world hates what the other half is doing", and I just thought it was beautiful, that one line. In many cases there is one little quote or one line that the whole thing is built from and they probably reflect a period of sensitivity to what's going on around me. So the thread that you're chasing there may exist, but I certainly wasn't conscious of it.
It's funny, in Dog Years, which is a very funny song, even in that you're talking about "We get it backwards/And our seven years go by like one," and so forth.
Peart: That came from a columnist in the New York Times. She was riffing on about things and she said she's getting tired of living in dog years, where every seven years seem to go by like one and I thought it was a beautiful little image, and that happened to be right after we got together and we'd been a bit celebratory. I of course, was a little wasted the next day (laughs) and thought, I'm not going to be able to do anything but I'm a professional so I'll sit down and try and Dog Years is what came out of that state of mind. I wasn't sure at the end of it if it was stupid or smart, but I liked and, like you said, it definitely made me smile too so I passed it along to the other guys and they had the same response. That was just an example of sitting down not in the right frame of mind for creative work but forcing myself to go through the motions and something different came out of it.
Given the theme of the title track, is that why you've used the graphics from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 throughout the package?
Peart: The funny thing on that is we wanted to use that theme where they find the model that's on the moon, but we wanted to put our Inukashuk in there, and they wouldn't let us do it. They were quite amenable to letting us use the original image, which I thought was nice enough, but they wouldn't hear of us (altering it). We had actually done a version of it with three astronauts on it to reflect our three guys that keep appearing here and there as the stone-carvers and the mountain-climbers, so we had a version of that with the Inukashauk under the light and the three astronauts in the foreground. They made us change it, so that's how that came about. We figured that image was still relevant to the song.
The Inukashuk is the big stone statue on the front cover? Peart: Yes.
Aside from being kind of a joke about all the snow you say you encountered while recording Test For Echo, how did you settle on that particular image?
Peart: I was up in Yellowknife last June on a motorcycle trip across the country, and there's one of those Inukashuk above the town overlooking it, and I was quite taken with it. I bought a postcard almost exactly the image you see on the cover, although this one's been carefully made to incorporate the other elements (three tiny climbers). I just came back with this postcard and I thought of "test for echo." I thought that's exactly what these men mean when you're out in the wilderness. I had a friend who was hiking out in Baffin Island and he told me when you've been hiking for a few days and you come across one of these things, it's such an affirmation that there's life out there. Again the same thing: it's an echo - the word Inukashuk means "in the likeness of a man" - and that's the feeling a traveler in the Arctic would get, that it was a sign of life. The same with the satellite dishes. I was kind of referring to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the test for echo going out that way.
The phrase "Being geniuses together" (one of the signs the band plastered on the wall of the recording studio during the Test For Echo sessions) was the title of a book by writer Robert McAlmon about life in Paris in the '20s. Is that where that slogan came from?
Peart: No, but I have that book. But it was just Geddy and Alex amusing themselves. We had a whole slew of these ridiculous inspirational slogans hanging around the studio, some of them unrepeatable but all equally goofy, so they came up with that on their own. I certainly do know the title that you've mentioned, and I've always loved it for that irony.
What about some of the other slogans you can mention?
Peart: There's one we worked into the cover art: "If you want something done right, just forget it." But we had all these up on the wall just to lighten the atmosphere.
What about one you can't mention?
Peart: I'll tell you it. You probably can't print it, but it's funny anyway: "I'll shut up when you f-- off."
I was curious about the line in the song Totem: "I've got twelve disciples and a Buddha smile/The Garden of Allah - Viking Valhall/A miracle once in a while." Where did that come from?
Peart: I've always been curious about all religions, and the Totem idea came from the Freud book "Totem And Taboo", which I ran across at the Chalet studio where we were working just in the bookshelf in the living room. I had been kind of rediscovering Freud by way of Jung and getting to understand the really deep stuff he was dealing with as opposed to some of the pop psychology that we were fed growing up, and I thought Totem And Taboo was such a beautiful title because it's what we fear and what we worship. Totem being what we worship and Taboo being what we fear. What a beautiful, embracing metaphor. At one time, the song Resist was called "Taboo" because I wanted to have the two little set pieces of what we fear, and in "Totem" I was just trying to appropriate all religions because that's what I found looking around at different religions and different systems, is that they all have something good. So I thought why not have them all? The "Buddha smile" is a nice thing, and I'd like to have 12 Apostles ... it's all great. It was really just a kind of tongue and cheek, all the good things of different religions. And the ' elements of the ethics of angels and demons came from a writer called Ella Quenna, who once drew a great parallel between the good goofy and the bad goofy, just like in the Disney cartoons there was a good Goofy on his shoulder telling him to do good things, and a bad Goofy telling him to do bad things. I like that as far as angels and demons, which I think all of us definitely do have.
Where did the concept behind the song Video Vertigo come from?
Peart: That's a Pye Dubois idea. He and I have co-written a fair amount over the years (e.g. on Tom Sawyer). I always like working with him because it takes the boat to a place that we wouldn't get on at home, and a lot of that kind of imagery comes from him and I try to impose order on it (laughs). My sense of structure, I guess, around his kind of street poetry. So a lot of that imagery came from him. I drew it into the things we've been seeing on TV the last couple of years. The O.J. trial going on for a year and a half - I'm shocked by that. Why do people care? I couldn't figure it out. "Does anyone else think this is weird" is what I kept feeling about things like that. The celebration of the criminals is nothing new, it goes back to Robin Hood or even earlier of celebrating the daring counter establishment type. But I just thought it was getting a little too far with the gangsters, so I kind of wanted to poke at that too. And the other side too that these guys are pretty tough until they face the jail.
I found the song Virtuality really interesting because I'm aware of the experiences you've had with the Internet, which were negative ones, in particular the whole Modern Drummer letters experience. (NOTE: Peart used to personally answer the letters he got each year from fans who read Modern Drummer magazine. After someone mentioned this little fact on the Internet, the volume of letters increased tenfold, and Peart had to abandon the exercise.) But I find it odd in the context of the theme of the title - "Is there anybody out there" - and trying to not feel alone, since that is one of the ostensible raison d'etres of the Internet.It's the perfect manifestation of people's need in the 90's to see if there is anybody else out there. Yet you have a really negative take on the Internet.
Peart: Yes I do, in the sense that I was poking fun at it. Though, because all of the claims that I make in the song - "I can save the universe in a grain of sand" and all that - the subtext, of course, is "No, you can't". Another line goes, "I can smell her perfume, I can taste her lips". Of course, "no you can't". That's what I was getting at. I just felt compelled to kind of puncture it a little bit. I spent a lot of time rewriting and rewriting, probably from my own demand and also Peter Collins, our co-producer, kept wanting to take me a level further, so when I came up with the astronauts and the different ways of describing the shipwrecked mariners or the waving. ("I'm a castaway, standed in a desolate land/I can see the footprints in the virtual sand"). I particularly like the two vagabonds waving from passing trains. That's really how it seems to me. It's not real contact. I love letter-writing, for instance, it's one of my favorite forms of communication.
But don't you think that, given the way things are going in the'90s, this may be the ONLY contact possible for a lot of people who don't want to feel like they're alone out there?
Peart: Not when it gets better. At the moment it really isn't there, and I thought the claims being made for it were so far-fetched, and I'm particularly down on the idea of virtual reality itself being anything more then a game. As a compulsive traveler, every time I go to a place ... like I was in Sicily earlier this year thinking, how would anyone capture Palermo on virtual reality. Or I was down in Tunisia and I travel a lot in West Africa too and all these places, if they did it, they'd dignify it and they'd take out the stink. And that's what's makes it real.
Do you think there's any legitimacy to the argument that, for a lot of people, they don't have the means or the hope to ever experience Palermo and maybe, even given all its faults, this is the only way they're even going to come CLOSE to it?
Peart: Yes, but I don't think it's a good way. I think a fake is not a hope and it's not a substitute. It's a pale substitute and again it becomes a demystification. I hate what's happening with the (Disney movie of) Hunchback Of Notre Dame. It's destroyed for all time now, because one can never read that book without it being a cartoon. There is a whole dark side to faking things and making theme parks out of the world. The world isn't like that and you can't hope to understand West Africa without going in there and suffering and getting dysentery, and walking through the snowy cities and dealing with it on the level that it is. If you can't do that, it's much better that you read a book about it that tries to convey it. Like the one I'm publishing this year. I think there are ways to convey these things, and certainly the imagination has to be part of it, but virtual reality requires less imagination. Again, I'm just puncturing it. I do believe in a lot of things, it will be a wonderful game, it will be a wonderful entertainment, and the Internet itself, when it does really get what I would like it to be, it will be both useful and a possible source of --- .
And your book, which you mentioned fleetingly a few minutes ago?
Peart: Yes, I have a book called The Masked Rider. It's about a trip to West Africa and a whole lot of other stuff woven into it too, of course. One thing I really like about travel writing is, there's nothing that doesn't fit. Whatever you want to do - autobiographically or philosophical asides - everything fits into it a big baggy pants of travel writing. The publishing came about in an interesting way. There is a writer Leslie Choyce, who wrote a book called "The Republic Of Nothing", and every year or two I try and write to somebody and tell them I appreciate their work. Sometimes it's a writer or a journalist. One time it was a TV weatherman. Someone whose work I like and the way they do it. So I wrote a letter to Leslie to tell him just how much I loved the book. That's all really, that's all I wanted to tell him, and he wrote back saying I'd won his nice guy of the month award. He could tell that I could put a couple of words together and did I ever think about publishing anything? I sent him a couple of writing samples, and among them was a self-published version of this book "The Masked Rider". He got excited about it and wanted to publish it and, unknown to me, he has his own publishing company, The Pottersfield Press. So we got working on that.
When did you put your self-published version out?
Peart: About five years ago. It's something I've done to develop the craft over the years. Whenever I travel, I keep notes and tapes and photos and try and turn them into a book. I've done six or eight of them over the years, just as a learning process and as a good way to develop the craft of pitching words together. That one, strangely enough for me, represented the turning point, the only one I could look at a year later and still like it. I thought I was reaching the point where I wanted to see about publishing and I'd made a few attempts without much feedback from the publishing world, so I've been approaching it legitimately and getting some magazine articles published in the last couple of years.
When will this be out?
Peart: In October, I guess.
Back to Test For Echo. The one verse that that really struck most is in Totem, and it's the quartet that goes, "I believe in what I see/I believe in what I hear/I believe that what I'm feeling/Changes how the world appears." Are you a solipsist? Because you can almost read this as, you can only really know yourself and that's all that exists.
Peart: No, people get so trapped in the moment, that if it's a bad moment, then life is bad. That's what I was getting at. If people are in a bad mood, the world looks dark. I was expecting the solipsism of what I see in everybody around me really. Seeing everybody -- to that degree that your mood dictates how the world looks and if your a cynic, the world looks pretty nasty, if your an optimist the world looks pretty sunny. That can very from day to day as much as from character to character so that's what I was seeing in people around me really, just drawing on that suddenly their whole reality seems to change by mood shift or by some chance of nastiness in the morning to set their day.
What's being said in the (otherwise) instrumental "Limbo"?
Peart: Oh, it's from the ('60s novelty hit) Monster Mash! That's another weird thing. I'd been stuck on Monster Mash and we were trying to use the Internet to get the words because I couldn't remember them. One of the guys on the production team is an Internet preacher. So I said, "Here's your chance, go get these lyrics for me". Well, he went onto the Internet and found the lyrics - but they were wrong! In all the jokes of that, our co-producer, Peter Collins, went out and bought the CD that had a compilation of some funny songs like that. We got to listening to it, thinking about how funny it was and decided to put some samples of it in there. That's Igor going "Goo mash goo".
So, that's one of you guys doing that?
Peart: No, no it's from the record. We had to get special permission and pay money and everything. You think it's so strange, when you just want to make a joke, and people want you to get permission and pay money. We got into that in the past. When we made our 'Exit Stage Left' live record we wanted to have (cartoon character) Snagglepuss's tail on there. You know, 'EXIT STAGE LEFT', with a picture of just his tail. Forget it! They wanted all kinds of legal hassles and tons of money. We always do make the effort, though. In 'Counterparts we were able to use the Three Stooges. This time we're able to use the 2001 thing which surprised me. At the time I thought, we'll never get it but we might as well try. But something as simple as Snagglepuss's tail, the whole burocratic thing throws up a wall.
There were reports on the Internet that there was a 12th song or a 13th song slated for Test For Echo at some point?
Peart: No. Actually, never in our history have we ever written a song and not recorded it, or recorded it and not put out it on the record. We figure if we go to that much trouble, it's going on there.
How about a CD-ROM track? Was it ever discussed at any point?
Peart: Yes, that's something we're really interested in doing. Sorry do you mean an enhanced CD (a regular CD with one track devoted to video material)?
Peart: Again, to me, that's a cheap version of something that can be really good. I wanted to hold off. We ARE working on a proper CD-ROM about Rush. We actually have people working in the basement of the office, digging up videos and bits of information and all kinds of trivia being put into it. We really want to make it something that exploits the potential that CD-ROM has.
So you're talking about a history of Rush, basically?
Peart: Yes, but with so many little side trips, and so many bits and pieces in there and little bits of my writing will show up in there and bits of other people's activities outside. We really want to make it a compendium. So, we're taking our time about that of course, because it is going to take a lot of work. I love CD-ROMs, I find them the most beautiful resource and I'm totally in favor of them. I think they are fully realized already, which I don't think is true about the Internet. In any case, that's something that we really want to do. But I feel the enhanced CDs, myself, are just a bit of a joke. They are not really a CD-ROM at all.
It does always seems like an afterthought, for the most part.
Peart: Yes it does, it can't add anything to the music. I kept saying to the record company, "We spent eight months making this record, we spent two months on the cover art, in two weeks you're going to put something on a CD-ROM format that's going to be worthy of conclusion in that package?" I don't think so! That's really what it came down to, it couldn't add anything worthwhile. We just kind of mixed it based on that.
So do you think we're a year or two from seeing something like this? Peart: I would guess, yes. Literally there are people digging through stuff. I wasn't exaggerating. It is going on, but it's going to take time.
Any thoughts on the recent Rush tribute album, Working Man?
Peart: No comment. I don't have any thoughts about it. It's not a tribute album at all, as far as I'm concerned.
Okay. In terms of the tour, have you started whittling down material? Are you going to make some hard choices, or are we going to be seeing medleys and so forth?
Peart: Yes, we opened up the scale a bit ourselves by doing "an evening with" for the first time.
So, no opening act?
Peart: Right. So we're going to have more time. We're actually opening up the vault a lot more than we've done before and making room for ourselves musically in terms of the presentation of the show. I think it will be really interesting and it will force us in a different direction. We're going to have two openings and two endings (laughs), which is going to be really interesting. We've been passing lists of old songs back and forth.
Does that mean we actually might get to hear "Cygnus" in its entirety?
Peart: Well, I don't know. It's been discussed, but nothing's engraved yet.
In terms of stage production and so forth, is it going to be something fairly elaborate?
Peart: Oh certainly! Why bother if we weren't going to do something on every level like that. I think the visual side is really important to us all as long as it happens AROUND us, and as long as we can just be playing in the middle of it. We like to have lots going on for people's entertainment, and it certainly doesn't compromise the music in any way because it doesn't really involve us.
Will the live show carry on the theme of the graphics for Test For Echo?
Peart: I'm certain to some degree it will. There are many powerful images there, so I'm sure we'll want to re-use them.
Lastly, what about Canadian dates?
Peart: Unconfirmed as yet. We're thinking of doing the tour in two segments, one part late this year and the other part in sppring and early summer of next year. We may leave the Canadian one until the weather gets better. Again this isn't nailed down totally yet, but we're thinking May and June is when we might be coming. (NOTE: SRO Management says there's a possibility of Canadian dates in mid to late December but, contrary to all the rumors, nothing has been booked yet.)
So not even Toronto dates late in the year?
Peart: Again, we want to do something different. We're not going to do the Molson Centre in January.
Well, thanks for you time, Neil. It's a really terrific album, and we're looking forward to seeing it on stage.
Peart: Thank you, my pleasure. It was a very enjoyable talk.