The Sum Of Its Parts"
An Interview with Neil Peart
Canadian Musician Magazine
by Peter Hamilton
In 1994 Rush will celebrate twenty years together. Counterparts, the group's 19th album to be released in as many years, is the next logical step in the progressive chain of events and changes that have come to define Rush. Recently we were able to talk with the group's wordsmith and drummer, Neil Peart, in Toronto to discuss not only the release of the new album but, more importantly, the inner workings, processes and state of events that helped to create and shape Counterparts.
The re-entering of producer Peter Collins (Power Windows, Hold Your Fire) was really no surprise but you did, however, go through a fairly intense process in selecting an engineer.
"Again, we always tend to; but this time a lot had changed since Roll The Bones. Just in the last two or three years the musical landscape around us had really changed. We were listening to music just as music fans, so of course we looked at the names on the credits to see who was recording and producing all these hits. It seemed that suddenly there was a new playing field to explore, but at the same time, we couldn't deny our own experience and our own knowledge as to how to make a record. It was hard for us to contemplate working with someone who, sometimes, had made fewer records than we had.
"Engineer Kevin 'Caveman' Shirley was our choice for the actual recording. His previous work seemed to capture the instruments in a raw, direct fashion; powerful and exciting and as faithful as possible to what guitars and drums really sound like."
Was using that approach with Peter Collins and the engineer Kevin Shirley instrumental in capturing that 'liveness' one hears when listening to the album?
"No. From a recording point of view, it wasn't a whole lot different than the way we have worked in the past. The Caveman certainly made a difference because he has a very strong mind and very pure approach to recording. It was a little dangerous for us going into that because we have built a history and personal taste for very refined-sounding, high fidelity work. It was hard listening to his previous work. It was hard to fit us into that context, but then we realized that if it turns out to be too raw for us working with Caveman, we'll get somebody to come in at the end who will have the same values that I just mentioned. Mixing engineer Michael Letho had that beautiful approach to building a mix, rather than just starting it and letting it play. As counterparts, they were perfect choices for us. It was partly good planning and partly good fortune that it worked out so well."
"Stephen W. Taylor (Bones engineer) had a very lovely approach to getting a very refined sound on the drums, but in every case my drums are on the floor and the engineer comes out and listens to how they sound, and that is what I like to hear when I come back into the control room.
"I always love engineers who can get a drum sound up while you're talking about it. I've never been able to understand bands that go in and hit a bass drum for three days and then hit the snare drum for three days. I don't have the patience for that and I don't see the point in it. I don't think the results bare out that kind of time invested. I like to go in and play my drums for half an hour while the engineer explores different things and then start recording. The Caveman was able to do just that. If there were little changes that I wanted to hear in timbre of the drum sound or something, he would come out and move the microphone. It was a refreshing change in these days of over-reaching technology. For him, a little more top end meant moving the microphone rather than turning the EQ knob."
Lyrically, there is the appearance of first person experiences that didn't seem quite as apparent in your previous work.
"It's a bit of a red herring almost. In a lot of instances, the adoption of the first person stance was a technical thing. For some of the songs, the situations are entirely invented like 'Cold Fire' or 'Speed of Love', but I wanted to put them in a warmer context. As with Roll the Bones, I was dealing with such a cold theme, if you like. I went through great pains with those songs to warm them up in different ways and to warm up the whole concept of our lives being dominated by chance. So in this case, with the dualities, I didn't want to present just black and white themes.
'Nobody's Hero' was a real challenge, because it didn't start off with those little autobiographical sketches. It started out as a very abstract theme of what is a hero and is this good? Through conversations with my friends over the course of the last tour, and all of those late night brainstorm sessions that you get into with like-minded people, one of the common themes I found was the concept of what a real hero is and what a hero isn't. I did have the memory of a friend that I knew in England, who was the first gay person that I ever knew and he was, not in a heroic sense, but he set such an important, good example for me. It was the counterpoint, if you like, that I was trying to raise against heroism. That all we need is a good example from people. 'Everyday Glory' contains that thought as well. That one spark of light to set an example is really the best thing that you can do. Being a parent myself too, that's my law of parenthood. Number one, don't warp them out and number two, set a good example.
"So when the first person setting does come up, as in the case of 'Nobody's Hero', it's to get a personal slant on a very universal, abstract theme. In 'Cold Fire', the characters and the whole situation is really invented to sort out the images. 'Animate' is self-reflective but again , in an abstract sense. I got excited about Carl Jung's idea about the male and female counterparts within an individual and I thought that was pretty interesting; and, without getting all iron-jawed about it, I always felt a strong feminine side in myself, so I just figured that that was something that came alive for me. I dressed it up in a lot of imagery from biblical things and Camille Paglia - a lot of primeval, mother-type images.
"With 'Alien Shores', I was thinking about these discussions among friends that I've had where, when we talk about gender differences or about racial differences, we can talk about them dispassionately because we were normal, right-thinking, generous, well-travelled people who counted all these different people among our friends and equals. I realize that these subjects are too dangerous in many cases to discuss because they are so freighted with prejudice and misunderstanding. I wanted to take that one and put it into a personal context of a conversation that, 'you and I are different but we don't have a problem with that'. Unfortunately, a lot of the people, if not most of the people around us, do."
You seem to maintain a wonderful balancing act between control and discipline in your art of drumming and lyric writing and then, you are able to offset that with the content of what you are writing about.
"I have a very careful approach to doing things that way. I realize that I do tend to be very organized and over-prepared sometimes. I spent about two weeks just by myself going over the songs and refining my parts, but I was very careful not to refine them to the nth degree. There are parts to every song that I didn't let myself work out and didn't let myself rehearse, so that when we went into the studio, I could deliver something fresh, albeit in a well-rehearsed framework. As long as there's a sense in my mind when I'm playing it that I'm a little on-edge and a little unsure, that makes it more exciting and makes the whole thing more dynamic.
Peter Collins is also one to think that way. When I would come in and play through some of those songs, as we were recording the tracks, by the time I played it once to let the engineer get a sense of it and then the second time through just to· smooth it out, he would say, 'Okay, stop!', and I would go, 'Wait a minute! It's not perfect yet'. Then he would say, 'No, it's good. You've got to leave it like that'. I would go in and listen and put aside what I felt to be tentative. I knew the part well enough and was rehearsed well enough to deliver it properly and at the same time, tentative enough to be fresh and exciting. He would catch me at that moment, just on the cusp, where if I played it five more times, yes, it would have been more definitive with every note in its proper place, but it would tend to be a little plodding and a little imperfect in that sense."
There seems to be less of a reliance on technology this album. It is present, but it seems to have been moved further in the final presentation.
"That's stylistic, really, more than real. We still did all the composing and arranging on computer, so we made plenty of use of it. All the demos where recorded on Adat. Technology was still our tool, but we just chose to stay away from MIDI. Keyboards that we did use were from John Webster of Red Rider fame, and lately the hired gun on everybody from Metallica to Aerosmith. We set the parameters that we were going for a more organic approach, and that keyboards would best be limited to organ and piano, and he soon picked up the spirit of that as well. Those were the keyboard approaches that we did use when we wanted to add some grace notes or atmosphere or texture from the keyboards. That was a conscious stylistic approach, I think, but probably was dictated by
the songs; but then, the songs were dictated by the theme in the first place. The three of us discussed the area in which we wanted to explore, so the songs ended up reflecting that.
"It is interesting, and certainly what you say is true, that the record has a less technological feel about it. But as so often happens, appearances don't reflect the reality that we certainly made good use of technology all the way through it in a tool sense."
At the moment, the music in this country seems to be going towards a more back-to-basics type of sound and approach. Are you affected by these trends?
"Absolutely. For us, it was a vote of affirmation. In the late eighties, we started to feel pretty isolated because all the values that we had been holding all this time - of musicianship and everything that is part of the music - should be good. Whether it's the drum part or the bass part or the lyrics or the album cover, any detail of what we do should achieve a certain standard of quality. That seemed to be dying out. Most bands didn't have musicians. There were a lot of machines Then things changed.
"Suddenly in the nineties, as you point out, guitar, bass and drums suddenly became the dominant species. Suddenly there were all these good drummers who were able to play and carry the standard forward. Affirmation is absolutely the right word. It's like, 'Okay, we've been doing the right thing and now everybody knows it'."
"The mythology that surrounds being a pop musician is something I'm constantly attacking because I think, as I mentioned early in the conversation about heroism, it's not a constructive thing for anybody. Demythologizing all of that is something I often try to do, whether it's in interviews like this or even in songs. There's a little bit of it in 'Nobody's Hero' or 'Superconductor' or 'Limelight' in the past. Touring is very de-humanizing. During the last tour, we introduced three different songs at the end that we hadn't played in years. Learning them on the fly helped to really keep things fresh and dangerous for us. There was no lack of satisfaction on the work front, but it was just so draining. I'd find myself in the afternoon staring at the highway with my mouth hanging open. I looked like a moron and had to slap myself in the face to sharpen up!
"I just keep coming down to the point that if the band is going to be vital and a living thing, then it has to be working in front of audiences. I have to think that it's a lifeblood thing, it's important. The only thing worse than touring is not touring."
For the previous album Roll the Bones, there appeared to be an excitement within the band, a sort of youthful enthusiasm. Do you find that is again present, and is touring likely to diminish that feeling?
"I don't think that touring drains away. Touring kind of feeds that. The last tour in other ways was very important for us. We toured with Primus for most of the tour. Every night between dinnertime and showtime, there were crazy jam sessions in the tuning room where people were picking up instruments that they don't play or banging on bicycle frames, playing accordion or flute or gongs or anything. The three guys from each of the bands were just wandering in and out of these little impromptu sessions every night. It got us back into making noise just for the fun of it. It served us well through the tour in keeping us vital and making us feel looser too. We did take a somewhat looser approach to this record, which was probably influenced somewhat by that. It was pure enjoyment just to go in and play for the fun of it. That is a part of touring which wouldn't have happened under any other circumstances."
As you explained in a recent radio interview, Rush is very much a sponge.
"The word's not attractive but the metaphor is (laughs). We absolutely are. That's what I was saying before about the music around us now being a vote of affirmation, but at anytime, it's always an influence whether it's electronic dance music or world beat or ska music from the late seventies, all those things creep in and if it's something that we like, we'll want to use it and any style of music that any of us has ever liked has found a way to sneak into Rush somehow.
"Oh yeah, we are always surprised by that narrowness and factionalism among fans that happens, where if you like one band, , you can't like another band. I always make the tapes that they play, when people are coming in or between sets and so on. In the late seventies, while touring England, I was adding in some of the music that was starting to happen at the time. I remember I had a couple of The Police songs on the 'show tapes', as I call them, and English audiences were booing because if you liked The Police, you couldn't like Rush and if you liked Rush, you couldn't like The Police. It really shocked me. Here was another band who, at the time, was very interesting with good musicians and doing good stuff. There was no reason for a young musician not to like them.
"I know when we started introducing those kind of same influences into our music, a lot of our fans were appalled! It was like, 'Oh no, Rush is putting reggae into their songs! Not them, too!!' It was like we betrayed them. We betrayed the past. And that's how it was, because those kind of people wanted to hear Styx and Foreigner and Boston and the FM of the seventies continue on. Suddenly, we were daring to break away and join up with these infidels; and to sign up with the rebels and say, 'Hey, we think they're doing something good, and we're going with them. Bye!'."
As contemplative musicians who explore their art with such maturity and passion, it's certain that Rush will continue to stretch boundaries and raise standards through their music.
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