Although he's been the man responsible for putting thoughtful words into Geddy Lee's mouth for the past three decades, Neil Peart has rarely spoken publicly.
A simple, human desire for privacy is no doubt the main reason, particularly in the wake of the horrific period at the end of the 1990s when the Rush drummer lost both his wife and 19-year-old daughter within the space of 10 months.
But given the amount of writing done by Peart, who has authored four autobiographical travelogues - The Masked Rider, Traveling Music, Ghost Rider and the more recent Roadshow: Landscape With Drums - over the past decade and religiously maintains the content at his NeilPeart.net website, perhaps the man would just prefer to air his thoughts in a different manner.
True to form, he's mulling over his laptop, cigarette in hand, and attempting to finish up a review of the latest Dave Eggers novel for the "Bubba's Book Club" section of the site when this writer arrives one Monday morning at a Port Lands rehearsal space. That's where Peart has been whipping himself into shape for Rush's upcoming world tour. One of the virtuoso drummer's legendary 'kits practically glows on a raised dais behind him.
The lengthy road swing - Rush won't hit Toronto until a pair of dates at the Air Canada Centre on Sept. 19 and 22 - follows this coming Tuesday's release of Snakes & Arrows, the trio's first album of new material since 2002's Vapor Trails.
Co-produced with 36-year-old young Turk Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver), it's a muscular, wholly contemporary sounding update on the classic Rush formula of elevated musicianship, metal anthemics and lyrical food for thougSht, the latter honing in this time on matters of love but mainly of faith.
"There was no concept of Nick being the young guy at all. We were just kindred spirits equally enthused about the work we were doing," says Peart, who like bandmates Lee and Alex Lifeson is 54 and appreciates the occasional kick in the ass from an outside observer in the studio. "We always like to have somebody else's spirit, really - not just their voice or opinion but somebody else's overlook on things. Somebody to encourage us, to prod us, with arrangement ideas, performance ideas.
"That's what happened with Nick. We know how to arrange a song and we know how to record it and produce it. We could do it ourselves, but we know it's better if we don't."
The band was, in fact, slightly awed at the precociousness Raskulinecz exhibited in the studio. Peart credits the producer, a lifetime Rush fan who would air-drum his ideas to Peart, with pushing the trio's already renowned playing to new levels ("I wouldn't ask you if I didn't think you could do it" was a favourite expression) and refusing to let it repeat past glories. He was a vigorous enough taskmaster, in any case, that Peart is forced to concede, "I've got nice blood blisters all over my fingers right now from trying to emulate that performance."
Peart's words, meanwhile, came from some of the usual, rarefied sources - Richard Dawkins and evolutionary psychology are current inspirations - but also in large part from his experiences touring the back roads of America and Europe by motorcycle during Rush's 30th-anniversary tour in 2004.
It was on his rides through various Bible Belts, chronicled in print in Roadshow, that Peart realized he could no longer "stay neutral" on the topic of religion, he says. Snakes & Arrows addresses some of his conclusions in tunes like "Armor and Sword" and "The Way the Wind Blows," which ponder the perversion of faith into oppression and war, and the telling "Faithless," which rejects adherence to higher powers in favour of a humanist allegiance to one's own "moral compass."
"It came from travelling through all these back roads and small towns and seeing these church signs everywhere," says Peart. "Some of them are amusing, like: 'If you give the devil a ride, pretty soon he'll want to drive.' That's fantastic. But other ones were just so presumptuous with these big crosses and scripture. What makes you think that's okay? I tried to imagine going by one with the crescent and star saying, 'There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.' Or one with the Star of David saying, 'That carpenter wasn't our messiah.' It makes me laugh, in a way, but in another, this is so f--ked up.
"It's so arrogant and that's what I can't get over. So I was trying to weigh all that .... I didn't want to make enemies gratuitously, but I decided I had to say something because if I didn't I was just allowing that to happen. It's worth speaking out despite the vilification and stuff that might come back at you. If you're not speaking for reason, you're speaking for unreason."
For all the prose he's mined over the years from his touring experiences, however, Peart remains only a grudging participant in the process.
When Rush hits the road, it hits it hard - the Snakes & Arrows tour kicks off in Atlanta in June and wraps on Oct. 29 in Helsinki - and this has always been an odd source of inner conflict for a drummer's drummer blessed with playing in one of the world's most vaunted live bands.
To keep things interesting, though, he promises Rush feels somewhat "liberated" from its catalogue after doing a pure greatest-hits tour three years ago, and will this time be honing in on new material and "old songs that we haven't played for years or that we've never played." One such gem from 1979 is in the works, although he won't say which.
"I've written before that I first quit touring in 1989 and I've been quitting touring ever since," laughs Peart. "No, I don't find it rewarding at all. It's arduous and repetitive, but it's part of the job. I love rehearsing. What we're doing right now I love, learning the songs and the three of us playing together and getting in lockstep with the band and such. All of that's great and the first couple of shows are great, but then it's six months of my life. I don't get my life back until November."
"What does a band do? A band plays live. To me, that's fundamental and one thing that's kept me from quitting all this time because it seems obvious to me that if we stop playing live, we stop growing. It's not real. For us to be a real band, I just accept that it's what I have to do. Nobody's job is heaven - I look around all the time and I feel grateful to have that choice ...
"I know there are a lot of bands from our generation slogging around clubs and state fairs just to make a living and we can choose every few years to do a tour of huge venues and travel by bus or motorcycle, so I'm not being cynical about it.
"But I spent last year at home writing a book ... and writing new songs and that's the good stuff. What we just did - the three of us going away together and working together and creating new material - that's the ultimate part of the job.
"Going out and doing the same thing over and over again, how can that be great unless you're so shallow that you feed off that?"