When Rush has lag time between touring and recording, drummer/lyricist Neil Peart hardly sits at home in Quebec whittling drumsticks. Lest anyone doubt the sincerity of the workaholic who penned such odes to activity as "You won't get wise with the sleep still in your eyes," consider that in 1996 alone, Peart published a book about his travels in West Africa ("The Masked Rider"), produced enough tracks for three all-star tribute albums to drum legend Buddy Rich (the second volume of "Burning for Buddy" has just been released) and brushed up on his drumming with New York jazz veteran Fred Gruber. Somewhere, he also found time to help write and record Rush's 16th studio album, "Test for Echo."
"The Masked Rider" chronicles Peart's 1988 bicycle trip through Cameroon and reveals the love for adventure travel that takes him off the beaten path. He's been back to the Dark Continent four times since then, and he'd probably be peddling his way through there right now if it wasn't for Rush's current tour, during which the band is pushing its Energizer Bunny-like endurance to new extremes with an extended three-hour set. Typically, Peart thrives on the challenge. Calling from a tour stop in Milwaukee, Wis., the drummer is amicable and at ease discussing everything from African politics to the genius of Buddy Rich. Still, there's never any doubt that Rush remains his main focus.
In your book, you talk about a guy in Africa who heard you were a musician and approached you with a demo tape. Aside from that, were you ever recognized anywhere there as The Guy From Rush?
[Laughs] Halfway up Kilimanjaro! It's funny - it happens at the strangest times. We're not that well known, especially outside of America, and I'm not that recognizable, but it happens at the strangest, most unexpected moments, and that's what makes you always have to be on guard.
Did suffering from dysentery and staying in hotels that lacked running water help you keep the rigors of life on the road with Rush in perspective?
No question. When I hear somebody complain about a hotel, or room service being slow or something like that, I just want to say, 'I want you to come down to Africa with me for a couple of weeks, and forget all that.' I just could never be spoiled by Western life because I will always appreciate it. When your life is reduced to the search for some water to drink and some rice to eat, it cements your values forever.
Do you worry about people seeing your name or picture on the book and buying it - or not buying it - because you're a well-known drummer?
Yeah, and I did have a lot of trouble getting published, because the publishing world is so self-contained and self-centered. So when I first started feeling out literary agents and stuff like that, the kind of response I would get would be things like, 'Oh, if John Updike put out a CD, would anybody buy it?' Well, if it was good, they might. But as far as using my music reputation to sell the book, I'm comfortable with that because I've built the house my own way and with my own values and I'm really proud of it, so if I carry it over to the hard work that I've also put into the prose writing, then I don't see any problem there.
Between writing the book and putting together the Buddy Rich tribute albums, you also went back and took drumming lessons from Freddie Gruber. What made you seek formal instruction?
Probably what drew me into the big band thing was the desire for new horizons and to reinvent something ....That was exciting for its own sake, but I didn't know if it would be applicable to what I do in Rush, because after 20 years the band and me together have developed certain things which are probably right for each other. So I had to accept the reality that all this work may just be a tangent, but as it turned out, learning how to swing had everything to do with learning how to rock. It didn't seem that dramatic to me or to the guys in the band, until they started playing along with me and realized that they had to shift their whole time-sense to route where I had arrived.
With all that you had going on, was it hard for you to sit down and get back into the Rush groove?
No, I was so excited to. I did put it off for a while, and I told the guys, 'Look, I'm at work on something big and new that's really important to me, and I want at least a full year to let it develop.' But when we did start working together, I couldn't wait to have new songs to start working on and start applying some of these new things I'd learned. I was anxious to see if where I was going had any application to Rush music.
After so many years of repeating the album-tour-album-tour cycle, do you all ever wonder how long you can keep things fresh?
If a song gets tired, we stop playing it. But fortunately in our case, we really like the music we do, and most of the old songs we're really happy to keep playing because they were designed for us to play live night after night and not get sick of them. But one change we made this time was going with the 'Evening With' format and having a really long show and having the freedom to stretch out more with both old and new material.
Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and you were recently given the Order of Canada. Does that get you a table next to Sir Paul McCartney?
[Laughs] No, not quite. Like America, Canada put aside the hierarchy of aristocracy. I guess it's kind of like the Presidential Order of Merit. It's just a good citizenship award for all the charitable work that we've done. It's mainly for good works, you can't get it just by selling a lot of records or for being famous, but we've been involved in a lot of good causes in Canada - United Way, AIDS causes, environmental causes. All of that gets you brownie.