The Road Less Traveled

A Conversation With Neil Peart Of Rush

By Jeff Miers, Weekend Music Editor, Buffalo New York's Metro Weekend, October 17 - 23, 1996, transcribed by pwrwindows

In 1980, I was 13 years old, and attending a boys' military academy. Rush was about to release Permanent Waves, the album that would solidify their position at the forefront of cutting-edge modern rock music. My impressionable adolescent psyche had been walloped about a year earlier when I first was exposed to Rush. Exhilaration hardly describes the effect this music had on me. The band's bold and experimental leanings and extremely adept instrumental talents were unparalleled at the time. Musically, this band excited the hell out of me, and had a huge effect on my eventual career choice.

And then there were the lyrics of drummer/lyricist Neil Peart. Passionate, angry, defiant and, above all, so damned intellectually stimulating. This guy was smart, and made me think it was really cool to be really smart. I rapidly became obsessed with this enigmatic rock musician who played like a cross between Keith Moon and Bill Bruford, and wrote like Herman Hesse and John Dos Passos. Finally, my long-held belief was tangibly justified: You could be smart, even intellectual, and still play heavy music! A rock musician didn't have to be a drug-guzzling scum with no moral code, and no higher ideal than the pursuit of power, money and chicks. Peart actually wrote songs dealing with such tried and true rock-n-roll themes as "integrity" and the disappearance of "naïveté." This absolutely blew my mind.

Some 17 years later, it's still blowing my mind. Rush have seen countless trends come and go, among them disco, heavy metal, and now grunge. They have released consistently forward-looking, challenging, passionately charged heavy rock albums, toured extensively, and garnered one of the largest and most loyal underground fan bases in rock history. And they've done it all with no help from radio, print media, or MTV. They are ridiculed by many, poorly imitated by countless others, and misunderstood by even more. Yet they forge ever onward.

The band's latest release, Test for Echo, is their 16th studio recording. It is also among their best, and is certainly one of their most vibrant. When I was 13, it was cool to be a good musician, it was cool to have intricate song arrangements, deep and literary lyrics, big drum sets, and song titles like "Natural Science." Most people don't think it's cool anymore. Rush have managed to remain a vital outfit, constantly evolving, changing, growing, and refining their craft. As a result, they remain one of the most important bands in modern rock music.

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." It's funny how little changes, despite what fashion merchants might claim.

I recently spoke with Neil Peart in Toronto, where the band was rehearsing for their "An Evening with Rush" world tour of 1996/97. I found Neil to be much as I had imagined he would be; intelligent, charming, candid, passionate, funny. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.


JM: Ideas like "passion" and "vision" have informed many Rush songs over the years, among them "Mission," "Cut to the Chase," and most recently, "Driven." The lyric "Driven to the margin of error" seems to me to be a key phrase on Test for Echo, and for Rush in general. Can you comment on what this sense of drive means to you, both personally and within the band?

NP: Hmm. It's great you focused on that, and you could make a strong case for that, certainly. When you're pushed too far, when you're on the edge... Actually, it's a broader metaphor than that, isn't it? When people are under great stress, that's when they tend to fall apart and make errors. Grace Under Pressure, and that whole concept of being a good man in a storm, describes exactly that; someone who can keep their head above water despite the pressure. Yes, that's exactly what you are when you're driven to that edge. It's really the test, isn't it?

It can also be when you produce your best work.

Yes, well, no question of it, you know. For instance, a lot of bands today are making records at home, in their personal studios and such. As for me, I really like going into a professional recording studio because it drives me to another level. You're aware that "This is costing me a lot of money to be here. (laughs) This is a professional environment, I've got to produce a first-rate performance, and hurry up about it"! So, there are all those pressures.

There's a sense that you're working...

Exactly. Ultimately, it is good pressure though, because it drives me to a level that I wouldn't reach otherwise. I can rehearse all I like, I can work away day after day at each song, but I'll never play them as well as I will under that kind of pressure, and under those controlled circumstances. They go hand in hand. At the same time, you're right. When you're really under the crunch is often when you produce your finest work.

Do you think that you could extend the metaphor even further, to include the band itself? I know when the group began, forgive me for saying so, (laughs) you often bit off more than you could chew, to challenge yourselves and create a space to grow into...

Oh sure, I still do! In recent history, for me going into the Big Band project, ("Burning for Buddy"! Polygram), I was way over my head! It's the only way I know to go, I think. The only things that I get excited about are things that I don't know if I can do yet. (laughs) Its kind of a character flaw, I suppose! But yeah, as a band, we would always experiment with things that were beyond our skills, but they would drag us into neat places. Some of our experiments were dead ends, certainly, and our records, over the years, are full of little things that were experiments and tangents that didn't really lead us anywhere. But they were definitely the right thing to do, and they were done with every correct instinct and ambition. The words you used at the outset with "Cut to the Chase" and that ambition; it's certainly a big thing. It's something that keeps our music fresh and vital... The fact that we are ambitious for ourselves! We're ambitious to improve, and make it better, and to go beyond those unsuccessful experiments, or less successful experiments if you like, and turn any dissatisfaction with previous work into something better. I think touring is a beautiful example of that, because you tend to judge your life completely on how well you played that night. One of the most difficult things about touring, one of the hardest things to live with on a day-to-day basis, is really to judge your whole existence based upon the quality of that couple of hours on stage. The thing is that every night, you get another chance! That's the good side. You say to yourself: "Well, I was really lousy last night, but tonight, I'm gonna' be perfect!" (laughter) So, you always walk up those stairs with that keyed-up sense of anxiety and determination and ambition and everything, to remake the universe. Truly what it comes down to is the chance to feel good about yourself again! There is always the hope of redemption, of redeeming yourself.

That leads rather nicely into my next question. Another recurring theme on this album concerns the idea of the subjective nature of existence.

Yeah! (laughs)

It seems that you're implying that the individual creates his or her own reality, an idealism in the philosophical sense of the word.

Well, yeah, I'm not celebrating that fact though, I'm just observing it. A good example would be in "Totem," where I'm saying "I believe in what I see / I believe in what I hear / I believe that what I'm thinking changes how the world appears"...

That's exactly the line I was thinking of...

I'm not speaking in the genuine first person of course, because I really don't feel that way. But I see it in the world around me, where for example, if people are in a bad mood, then the whole world is just such a dark place, and all people are bad, and everything that happens is horrible. Conversely, if they happen to be in a good mood, then everything is glorious, and there's sunshine and flowers and lollipops, you know. But does reality really change that much? (laughter) Well no, of course not, the filter does. So it's that subjectivity and that solipsism that I observe around me with some people. Do you know people who seem like a completely different person every day? You know, that's the observation that that line is based upon. It's kind of a tongue in cheek observation.

Wow. I think I may have misinterpreted that, because I was thinking even as far back as "Freewill," where you put the twist on the line "I will choose Freewill." Is that a different side of the same coin?

Yeah, that's a genuine first person, I would say. In modern times, I'm a little looser with that. When writing for a singer, it's nice to write in first person, because it gives the singer a role to play. But, I think as my skills have developed, I've become a little more creative with that, and I've often made the first person just a character... For instance, in songs like "The Color of Right" and "Cold Fire" off of the previous record. These are dialogues, but they're totally invented. When I have a big thing that I want to express, I find that if I take it down to a conversation, I can express it in more human terms. So it's a totally invented situation with totally invented characters. The knee-jerk reaction, unfortunately, is for people to take it at face value, and say, "Oh, he's writing about having an argument with his girlfriend." Well, that's okay, I guess it really doesn't hurt anybody. But I'm using it as a device in the same way...Well, Randy Newman is a great example of using irony, with "Short People." It's supposed to be ironic, but how many people...

Took it the wrong way...

They just didn't get it! It's a problem. I like to use irony too, and say one thing and mean another in a very deliberate way. The danger, of course, is the fact that we don't live in an ironic society. We live in a quite literal society. You have to be aware of this fact when you're writing. Many people just won't get it. But there are some people who are more interested in gathering the subtleties of a device like that. And it's there for them. I think what's important in our music is that all of those details are taken care of, but we don't necessarily expect everyone to get them. I don't expect anyone to analyze my drum parts any more than I expect someone to analyze my lyrical word forms. But it's there for them, if they happen to be interested in that I think there's an element of the way the band is, where we cover a lot of areas that may not be totally necessary...

No, but that's part of the pleasure for the Rush fan!

Hopefully. That's definitely what one hopes, yeah. Well, as far as the subjectivity angle goes... Of course, I consider myself an objectivist, and I try really hard to see things objectively, but I often portray them subjectively, simply because it's more dramatic. It's better for a singer to have a role to play, it's more relatable for a listener to have an emotional setting portrayed, than it is, to have some dry ideas dryly stated. It's a way of serving the listener, I suppose. That's something Geddy pointed out to me years ago. I remember we were working on a song that dealt with a bit of history... Ah, "Manhattan Project" was the one. We were trying to find a way to translate the dry historical facts to a lyrical format, and Geddy suggested we begin with the line "Imagine a time..." That was a line he provided for me, and it really made it come alive. Then I began each of the three verses in that style, with "Imagine a time...", "Imagine a place...", "Imagine a man...". It was exactly the piece I needed, it was a useful construct. I'll come back to ideas like that time and again. Also, there's this book called The Elements of Style, by Professor Strunk...

I know it well!

Remember the section in there called "Serve the Reader"? Music is like that: Serve the listener. What information does the listener need, and in what order should you present it, and how can you make it the most poignant, and how you can give it the nicest twist. Do you remember the song "Dreamline"? (from the album Roll the Bones) There's the line "We're only immortal for a limited time." It sounds nice on its own, but if you start thinking about it, you notice there's a whole other level there! I love things like that, and I love to have them there, so that it's available - on both levels, where, for the casual listener, it just goes by. But for someone who stops and thinks about it, they'll get a nice little charge out of the intellectual sparkle. Again, it's the idea of having that in there, if anyone cares to look.

I get the impression that you wouldn't have it any other way.

Well, no, it's my upbringing, I think. My dad always said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right." I'd do some job for my dad, and I'd say "Is that good enough?" And of course, he'd say "If it's perfect, it's good enough." Those are childhood values that I think haunt you for the rest of your life! (laughs)

Let's switch gears a little bit. What about the idea of the fleeting nature of time, and the elusiveness of moments? "Time and Motion" and "Dog Years" from the new album thematically echo ideas touched upon in "Time Stand Still," among others.

Carpe Diem, yes, seize the day. Yeah, I think the here and now, the preciousness of it, the excellence of it. And the transitoriness of it, of course, too. They all come from little observations. Like "Time and Motion" came from a letter I got from a friend, where he made the observation that Life isn't about what you get out of it, but rather what you push into it every day. I thought that was a beautiful illustration. Then I thought of the boxcars idea, how much you can load into that boxcar in terms of filling your life. ["Days connect like boxcars in a train / Fill them up with precious cargo / Squeeze in all that you can find"] So that song developed from that little germ. What was the other song you mentioned? Oh, "Dog Years." Yeah, that came from a similar sort of thing where I was reading the paper one day, and a writer was remarking that she was tired of her life feeling like dog years, where every seven years seems to go by one like one. So I thought that was a cool little notion. Again, it was dealing with the fleeting nature of time, as you said earlier.

Would you mind discussing "Spontaneous relations / and the long enduring kind"? This particular phrase really grabs me...

Yeah. Well, it's as simple as sharing a smile with someone on the street, or waving to a kid, you know. When I'm riding my bicycle through town, or when you're driving on the highway, and the kids are waving out of the back of the station wagon, or something. (laughs) Those are great little moments that can put a smile on your face. And of course, the "long enduring kind" are the relationships you work on over time, whether personal or professional. They take work and effort, and they need maintenance. In "Ghost of a Chance," I tried to make that clear; with words carefully chosen; "We can find someone to love / and make it last." You pointed that out earlier in "Freewill" where I say "I will choose Freewill." I choose these words very carefully! (laughs) But anyway, marriage, strong friendships - these are the long enduring relationships.

Forgive me for stretching the metaphor, but couldn't this line also apply to Rush, in the sense that it encapsulates the paradox at the heart of the band's ability to endure; the ability to make a long-enduring relationship a consistently spontaneous one, by constantly re-inventing and re-creating itself?

Hmm. Well, I didn't think of it, but yeah, it works! (laughter) I can think of it in terms of my own drumming, where there's a long agenda of practicing and improving and all that. But at the same time, I like to keep it spontaneous. I love nothing more than to just go down in the basement and just play! To just let things happen as they will. In terms of the recording studio too, I'm always careful to keep a window of spontaneity in there, so that I haven't rehearsed every aspect of my performance. So it's always fresh, and a little bit dangerous too. I think it's really important to not know exactly what's going to happen, for a particular transition or a drum fill, or something. I'll have worked out a whole drum part and orchestrated it really carefully, but I always leave an area where I can be spontaneous. Again, that pressure we talked about earlier will drive me to a higher level, and allow those moments to be something other than they would have been. Hopefully something better than they would have been as well. In this way, drumming is just like life. If you look at it as a metaphor for how you approach your life, your relation-ships, your commerce with the universe. Life is full of these moments, it's an accumulation of moments, really, and one must deal with the spontaneity of life. As I said in "Time and Motion," we "spin a thread of precious contact" with others on our journey, and these relationships add to the state of flux. Again, it's the journey that counts. And the journey goes on forever!