by Susan Alexander
Neil Peart is not an easy man to catch up with. Many months of trying to arrange an interview with him had come to nothing. But, at last - one morning, right on the stroke often o'clock, my phone rang, and a genial Canadian voice came down the line ...
"I'm sorry that we couldn't get together before ..."
Neil Peart, drummer extraordinaire, was calling from Toronto. He explained the reason for his elusiveness: Rush had taken a much-needed summer break in their tour-album-tour schedule. They were just beginning to write and rehearse material for the next album, with a recording start date in January.
Even over the long-distance wire I found Neil Peart to be a very friendly and extremely articulate man. As you may imagine, it was hardly the most ideal circumstance in which to do an interview, but Neil's unassuming, easy-going manner made it a pleasurable experience, nonetheless.
We began with beginnings. Neil discovered a natural empathy with drums at an early age, so to discourage their son from beating up their furniture, his parents sent him to a drum tutor ...
"I was very fortunate in that I had a really good teacher to give me a basic beginning - to outline the parameters of how much I had to learn and what sort of areas I should look to be learning in. Although I didn't study for a long time, the quality of that time was very high and it was a very important beginning.
"The first thing my teacher played for me was a drum battle record between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. That was certainly a good introduction to the fine art of drumming. I think Gene Krupa was a really important influence because of the abandon with which he played. It might be a little inaccurate, but it's still so great and so well conceived in terms of being exciting to play and for an audience to listen to.
"I think his rock 'n' roll heir was probably Keith Moon. In fact, I see a lot of direct similarities between their playing styles, even though Keith Moon showed even more abandon and was more sloppy. But he was a drummer who really captured my imagination because he was so free and so exciting because of his freedom. It opened me up."
Later, Neil became interested in the progressive British rock bands of the seventies ...
"Drummers like Michael Giles of King Crimson, Bill Bruford with Yes, Carl Palmer with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Phil Collins with Genesis were all important drummers to me. They set such a high standard of technical ability but with the excitement that rock drumming has."
So what was the hardest thing for him to learn when he first started playing?
"I think the hardest struggle for most drummers seems to be developing a really good time sense and a strong tempo. I mean, double-stroke rolls and things like that were all very difficult for me to learn. It took a lot of time. But, years and years went into searching for a better time sense and a more accurate tempo."
In discussing his drumming today, Peart laughs when asked about his strongest points as a drummer...
"Those are probably very good terms in which to put it. I think a lot of my appeal lies in the fact that I overplay like crazy and I'm allowed to, within the context of this band. I'm lucky in that we've always been very free in the areas we've been able to explore. There's never been a damper put on me that I know most drummers have to deal with. I think the reason why a lot of drummers might like my work is because I get away with that and in their situations, they might not.
"I know that other musicians who aren't drummers might say, 'Oh, he's too busy. Why doesn't he just shut up and play the beat,'" he laughs. "Well that's their opinion. I can understand it, but personally I've always found active drumming to be very exciting. If Gene Krupa had just played four on the bass drum with the snare on two and four it wouldn't have been very thrilling. Nor would Michael Giles or any of the great players."
Neil has recently purchased a new set of Ludwig drums. So we talked hardware for a while. Even though he is literally surrounded by acoustic and electronic drums on stage, it's still just a 5-piece outfit which forms the basis of his set-up...
"Even now in my basement, my basic practice set is just a small Gretsch kit with a 20" bass drum, an 8"x 12" tom and a 14" x 14" floor tom. I can play happily away on that for hours. I don't see it as a limitation. It's just in the sense of having so many more voices to choose from - both in having an expanded acoustic set and in what you can do with electronics nowadays. It gives me more. I look at it as my own personal orchestra that I can orchestrate and conduct, as it were.
"When it comes to creating drum parts for songs and in the sense of expressing myself musically, I find I need a greater palette of colours from which to draw. But there are two sets of values there; from a drumming point of view and from that of just enjoying it. I'm happy enough with a small kit, but from a composition, arranging and expression point of view, that's where I like to have more to deal with."
Coming back to the point about electronics: in the past, Neil seemed reluctant to take the plunge, but now that he's had a taste, does he like them?
" There's still a bit of resistance from drummers. Sometimes it comes from a fear, or from a lack of understanding. I know for me that's what kept me away from it as long as I was. It was apprehension about something that I couldn't understand and thought perhaps I wouldn't be able to deal with. But I love what technology can do for me in terms of having more sounds from which to choose.
"Just lately, I've developed further into digital sampling using the Akai sampler with a Yamaha MIDI-controller and a Kat mallet percussion synthesizer. I've been using that over the past few weeks and it's just wonderful. Out of this one little instrument that's so portable (and relatively affordable compared to a set of vibes or tubular bells), I can have all of those sounds plus an infinite number of others. With digital sampling I can have really good quality samples of all kinds of ethnic percussion and all kinds of effects that we've made. And it's right there within a drum kit that I can still reach!" he says laughing.
"I do have a hunger for different sounds and for different colours and textures to work with in creating a drum part. But, at the same time, there are physical limitations when you want to play it as a drum kit. I want to keep my acoustic drums as a very predominant part of what I do.
"What does affect the playing, of course, is the nature of the electronic sounds, because they're less dynamic and less velocity sensitive. The sounds don't change so much according to how hard you play. There is a certain amount of sensitivity there, but nothing like what you can get out of an acoustic drum. I tend to lose a lot of that, or just leave aside the matter of playing sensitivity and play it as if it contained one sound. Consequently, it makes my approach to drum fills a little more linear. But my main rhythmic foundation is still an acoustic bass drum and an acoustic snare.
"To me, a drum machine is a great tool for songwriters; it has certainly freed my time from acting as a metronome for hours. But there's no purpose in me personally having one, because anything I can think of I can play a lot quicker than I can program. But as far as the sampling and so on, it's just a wonderful thing that allows me to have an orchestra of sounds at my fingertips, and be able to combine them in infinite ways with my acoustic drums and with other electronic drum sounds. For me, that's just irresistible."
Any one familiar with Rush's music knows that Peart experiments a lot with time signatures. I asked him how this developed...
"Going back to my background growing up through jazz and fusion and progressive rock, it just exposed me to them. Because I heard them and didn't understand them, it forced me to figure out how to do it and apply it to my playing. Then it became exciting for me. Once I got over the barrier of understanding, all of a sudden it began to feel more comfortable to play in odd times, and because it was comfortable, it became exciting.
"I was fortunate to be working in an environment with other musicians that allowed me the freedom and input. I could say to the guys, 'Okay, this is a nice musical part, but let's try it in 7 or 11, or 9,' and they were open enough and interested too."
"Oh absolutely, particularly when working on new material. I want it to be a challenge. Sometimes I'll put a drum fill in a song that I really can't play at that moment, but through the time of rehearsing the song and recording the demos and so on, I hope to practise it enough so that by the time we record it, I am able to play it. It's a challenge (in the fun sense) that I can set something up that I'd really like to try and go for. I hate to repeat myself too. It drives me on always to be looking for new combinations and new rhythmic approaches to things. It also makes me that much more open to influences from other people."
His influences are broad: we spoke of current drummers that he likes...
"I like to hear interesting ideas. There's a drummer called Steve Jansen who used to play with a band called Japan. I think he's very innovative in a rhythmic sense and combines drum sounds in very unusual ways. And I love to listen to Phil Gould of Level 42, just for the way he keeps the beat. He puts the backbeat so far back you can hardly believe it. When I try to just tap along with one of their songs, I just about break my arm trying to get the beat that far back. But somebody like Gene Krupa I still enjoy listening to because it's such exciting music."
Neil Peart is a hyperactive man whose only sedentary pursuits are reading and, of course, writing...
"Lyric writing is a perfect counterpoint to all of the physical things I do because it's a relaxed and introspective thing. It gives me a more 'cerebral' approach to music than drumming."
There is a lot in common, though, between playing the drums and lyric writing. He elaborates...
"I think it's essentially in the rhythmic approach and understanding the subdivision of time. Writing verse is based upon beats, rhythm, phrases and the relations therein. And creating a drum part works in exactly that same way. You have a framework of time and a tempo, and you can place your beats, your phrases and pauses and so on accordingly. I find the mental part of that construction is very similar in terms of my thinking, 'How can I divide this time interestingly. How can I make this the most comfortable transition and the most exciting.' All the same values come to be applied when I'm working on lyrics."
But that lyric writing, it seems, fell to Peart by default. Neither guitarist Alex Lifeson nor bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee were very interested in doing it, so Peart took on the job. He explains how the band composes...
"Our normal working pattern is to work separately in the afternoon. I'll sit at a desk and work on lyrical ideas while the other two work on musical ideas with my friend, the drum machine. For instance, on the album on which we're currently working, Geddy gave me a couple of ideas of lyrical themes that he had wanted to explore and hadn't got around to. I ended up just working from an inspiration that was given to me by him.
"Sometimes they work on a piece of music and I'll take the tape and try to create some words that will fit that particular music. But it often happens that I have some lyrics finished and they'll create music that is tailored to fit them."
And from where does inspiration come?
"It should be exciting and challenging. It's much the same as coming up with a drum part really. I have to be moved by something that interests me enough to go through all that trouble. Lyrics to me are the same as drums, in the sense that I constantly refine things and challenge myself, but it takes a great deal of refinement to reach a point at which I'm satisfied. I will rewrite a song, literally, dozens of times, just refining a word here and a phrase there and switching a verse around until I'm pleased with it enough to show it to the other guys.
"There are constant challenges in the rhythmic structure of a song that you play with - in new combinations of words, or in trying to be as concise as possible and still make a strong statement. I've learned from other writers in creating a mass of imagery that at first seems quite opaque and so abstracted as to be unintelligible, but which somehow leaves you with something. When you read the poetry of TS Elliot or the prose writing of William Faulkner, you sometimes get dizzy because you really don't understand what's going on. But at the end of it you're left with an image that's far more powerful than more clearly written things. I've always found that really intriguing.
"Over the past couple of years I've tried hard to analyse what it is that causes those combinations of pictures, sensations and emotions to come together and leave the listener or the reader with a somewhat uneasy, but very strong feeling that remains with them for a long time afterwards."
Neil is clearly pleased to find more and more drummers becoming involved in other areas of music...
"It's really exciting what's going on now with drummers branching out. Stewart Copeland is doing the music for ballets and film scores. I see that he's doing the music for the TV show 'The Equalizer' which is terrific. A lot of the letters I get from drummers now reflect that interest. No longer are they asking so much about snare heads and so on, but they're talking about themselves as being drummers who are also interested in singing or writing or arranging, or different avenues of music. I think that's very healthy indeed. "
So having received so much praise for his writing abilities, does he have other writing ambitions?
"Oh certainly. I would love to try writing in prose just to work in a different framework. But for now my main commitment remains, happily, with Rush and I'm totally fulfilled with the different aspects of life within the context of what I get to do with the band.
"I imagine some time in the future there'll be challenges that I'11 want to take on - I would love to create just one short story that I could be happy with. I think that would be a very big achievement, but I'm quite happy to let that rest in the future."
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