A Rock-Solid Survivor In An Unpredictable World

By Brad Wheeler, Toronto Globe & Mail, April 28, 2007

'We were listening to Far Cry, towards the end of it, and he asked if I could solo over that part. I said, 'Well, of course I could!' But it's not the thing, by nature, I would do. My natural exuberance is balanced by my natural reserve in music, too. Yes, I love show-offy fills and all that stuff, but I never intrude on a vocal part. And I never would co-opt an instrumental section, saying 'I should solo here.' It's not the Canadian way - ha, ha!"

Neil Peart is talking. A lot. The "he" to whom the drummer refers is Nick Raskulinecz, a Grammy-winning producer (Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver) who co-produced Rush's new album, Snakes and Arrows.

"And what was the third thing you mentioned? Oh, yes, the blues. That's funny. Of course, where we all started were those kind of bands that were playing Jimi Hendrix, the Who songs and Blue Cheer and Cream. I think the first band I played in played six Cream songs, and it was the same for Geddy and Alex. So, anyway..."

Peart, speaking in his rehearsal studio, refers to the blues of a few of the new songs, including The Way the Wind Blows, with its 12-bar moments. Being released next week, Snakes and Arrows is the first new collection of original material from Rush in almost five years, and it's the 33-year-old band's 25th album overall, not counting compilations and such. The band's last studio effort was 2004's Feedback, an album of cover tunes that explored the group's early musical influences. The bluesy ventures of Feedback seeped into the lean, power-rocking new disc.

When a publicist briefed me for the interview, she led me to believe the drummer liked to talk. In fact, she said: "And of course you know Neil likes to talk."

I didn't know that, though. Peart stopped giving interviews related to Rush's tours and albums years ago. After the tragic death of his daughter in an automobile accident in 1997, and the subsequent loss of his wife of 20 years to cancer months later, Peart went on hiatus from the group. For the next two years, he hit the road, logging countless miles and hours on his motorcycle. The experience is recounted in his book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. The 2002 album Vapor Trails brought the band back together, but the chores of press junkets and meet-and-greet sessions with fans were left to guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer-bassist Geddy Lee.

But now, in his Toronto rehearsal studio, the 54-year-old drummer's on a roll, so to speak. Erudite and enthused, Peart looks like a happier, larger and much more verbose Buster Keaton. There's not much to the studio, a dark space dominated by a spaceship of a drum kit in the room's middle. "I thought we could sit over there," he says, motioning to a pair of folding chairs next to a roadie case. "You can put your tape recorder right here."

Being a prolific writer himself (as the band's lyricist and author of four books), Peart is accommodating to journalists. "I wrote that for people like you," he says, cheerfully referring to a lengthy essay on the making of the album, posted online. (He not only wrote the essay, but also a 2,893-word blog on the actual writing of the essay). His highly readable and informative work may make the article you read now superfluous.

The new album's Parker Brothers-meets-Hamlet title comes from a line in a song - the fluid hard-rocker Armour and Sword - about how the scars of youth and fanatical upbringings extend into adulthood. ("The snakes and arrows a child is heir to are enough to leave a thousand cuts.")

"All of these well-armed religions start with children," Peart explains, mentioning Richard Dawkins' bestselling book The God Delusion. "A Christian child, a Muslim child - there's no such thing. They're made that way by their parents."

Other songs lean in the same direction. " Faithless was born out of the same reflection," Peart says, picking up speed. "Faith, for some people, can be a consolation, an answer to the big questions or solace when they're feeling hurt and lonely. It's a kind of armour. But bad faith, that's a kind of sword."

In that the song's chorus is slower than the verses, the tempo of Faithless is a departure. (The band is called Rush, remember.) Lyrically, with lines about one's own moral guidance, the ground is much more familiar. The song Freewill, from 1980's Permanent Waves, would not be out of place among the libertarian themes of Snakes and Arrows.

"Completely," Peart agrees. "You can't know that the outpouring of your youth will withstand time," he adds, admitting that some of his early drumming and lyrics make him wince today.

"But the same elements are true. Given these choices, even in the wake of sorrow or grief or frustration or whatever, I'll still deal with it myself. Nobody else or other thing is going to help it."

Faithless, in a sense, is a coda to Freewill. "That's so long ago," Peart says, "so much has happened to me in the meantime. And yet the basic simplicity of what I thought then is true. Now, it's 'Here's how I got along without that [faith]'

"It's like a carpenter's level, the bubble. I have a moral compass. I have a spirit level."

What's The Rush?

Rush was deliberate in the writing, planning and recording Snakes and Arrows. And now, with the album out Tuesday, thorough preparations for an upcoming world tour are well under way. A timeline follows.

At Geddy Lee's home studio in Toronto, guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer-bassist Lee craft music to lyrics that Neil Peart had couriered from California.

March 2006:
The band meets at Neil Peart's house in Quebec, where Lifeson and Lee present the drummer with a handful of songs.

May 2006:
Rush reunites in a Toronto studio for a month-long pre-production meeting.

Sept. 2006:
The band reconvenes for another month, this time with co-producer Nick Raskulinecz. Eleven songs are completed in rough form.

Nov. 2006:
Final recording begins in Allaire Studios, a rambling residential studio in the Catskill Mountains. The band planned to stay for two weeks to get the basic tracks down, but stay a month and a half to complete the album.

Jan 2007:
The album is mixed in California.

April 2007:
At his Toronto rehearsal space, Peart begins rehearsing for the tour. Lifeson and Lee join the drummer a few weeks later.

May 2007:
After full production rehearsals at a Toronto arena, the whole thing eventually moves to Atlanta for more rehearsals.

June 2007:
Rush kicks its North American tour on June 13.

Bass Reflex

As bass-playing lead singer, Geddy Lee is a rarity. The following list highlights the top four-string front men in the business.

Jack Bruce. Cream co-vocalist, with Eric Clapton, was also a trained cellist.

Phil Lynott. Poem-writing black Irishman led macho-rockers Thin Lizzy.

Sting. Tantric-happy Police man can hold notes, grudges and other things forever.

Paul McCartney. Also known to have written a song or two.

Mark King. Dynamite player led mild-funk flash-in-the-pan Level 42

Roger Waters. Pink Floyd leader shared mike with David Gilmour.