The trouble with being a rock star, says Neil Peart, is that you often have to grow up in public. Which is why the drummer and lyricist for Rush sometimes finds himself agreeing with critics who've found the Canadian trio's music more ambitious than inspired at times, not to mention a little heavy-handed.
"All your fridge drawings are out there for public consumption. That's how I feel about our old records," says Peart, calling from atour stop in Dayton, Ohio, en route to a performance at USAir Arena Thursday night.
Of course, that's not how Peart or his bandmates - singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson - feel about most of the trio's music, particularly its new release, "Test for Echo." Lee has called it the band's best album since 1981's double platinum release, "Moving Pictures," and Peart is quick to agree.
Over the past two decades and 16 studio albums, Peart says the trio has become more certain of its appeal, more confident of its skills and, undoubtedly, more lighthearted and lean. "As you go along," he says, "you're not as afraid to make fun of yourself or even be a bit ironic. Your dignity isn't as shaky, and you're not afraid of what other people might say."
The recording sessions for the new album took place after the trio returned from an 18-month hiatus, a period which proved unusually productive for all three members of the band. Lee and his wife became parents of a baby girl. Lifeson recorded his solo album, "Victor." And Peart oversaw a tribute CD and video celebrating the big band music of legendary drummer Buddy Rich. Peart also began intensive study with drum instructor Freddy Gruber.
When Peart became devoted to the lessons, which altered the way he physically moves around the drum set, the recording plans were put on hold. "Once I got into it and realized how profound the changes were, and how much I liked them, I knew that it would take a solid year of practice to mature into this new style of playing."
After the band finally returned to the studio last year, Peart found it easier than ever to assume his familiar roles of timekeeper and storyteller, but Lee and Lifeson weren't so lucky.
"Alex had just come off the high of creating a whole album from top to bottom by himself," Peart explains, so "it made it difficult for [Lee and Lifeson] to create a collaborative sense. But they hashed it out and found a way to work together in a way that was mutually satisfying."
True to form, Peart wrote all of the words for the new album, drawing on a notebook full of quotes, catch phrases and observations he had collected over the past few years. Lee and Lifeson then constructed melodies and rhythmic cadences to fit the words.
"I never have a clue what they're up to," Peart explains. "And I don't try to impart anything to them. I want them to do with it what they will. . . . It's always such a revelation. Words on paper are one thing, but to hear them sung - it brings out all of the nuances . . . it's a beautiful experience."
Still, there are frequent revisions, since Lee has to be perfectly comfortable with each lyric. Peart insists he appreciates the feedback, no matter how critical. "It means that they believe in the song, and it makes me even more eager to make it better."
In addition to showcasing tunes from the new album, Rush's current tour is designed to accommodate a lot of surprises. The nearly three-hour show will allow the trio to play several extended album tracks in their entirety onstage. "It's a whole new set of parameters for us," says Peart, "and gives us so much more freedom for playing our music, both old and new.
The expanded format will also allow the band to regroup during the intermission if something goes wrong. "I live and die on the road by how well I play every night," Peart confesses. "At least now we get a second chance at redemption if the first half of the show doesn't measure up the way we'd like."
As for his spare time, while Peart has no plans to abandon music for a career in travel writing, his first book will be published this fall. "The Masked Rider" chronicles a month-long bicycle tour he recently made of West Africa.
"You know," he asks, "when your learning curve has leveled off so that you can stand to read something you wrote a year ago without wincing? Well, when that happened, I realized that I was finally getting somewhere and I could go public."
RUSH - Appearing Thursday at USAir Arena. To hear a free Sound Bite from "Test for Echo," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)