Neil Peart: Taking Center Stage

Rush Drummer Neil Peart

by Michael Parillo

In Modern Drummer’s December 2011 cover story, out now, Rush’s Neil Peart discusses a particularly productive period in his and the band’s long career. Peart’s new DVD, Taking Center Stage: A Lifetime of Live Performance, has recently been released, hot on the heels of the eighty-one-show 2010-11 Time Machine tour, which the video documents in lush detail from Neil’s perspective at the throne. A particularly noteworthy aspect of Rush’s latest worldwide trek is that all three band members—Peart, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, and guitarist Alex Lifeson—made a conscious decision to improvise more on stage, which, as Neil says in MD, will almost certainly trickle down to the studio tracking of the upcoming Clockwork Angels album.

Amid all his recent activity, Peart found time last summer to make a couple of special appearances. First he anchored the maiden voyage of “drum solo week” on The Late Show With David Letterman, playing a truncated version of his “Moto Perpetuo” Time Machine solo. And then he dropped in as a last-minute guest at the KoSA 16 International Percussion Workshop, Drum Camp, and Festival in Castleton, Vermont, stunning the ecstatic audience, chatting with KoSA founder Aldo Mazza and the attendees, and jamming on stage with the faculty.

Here’s more from our interview with Neil, where he talks about his new DVD, playing at KoSA and on Letterman, and deepening his grasp of drumset ergonomics with his teacher and dear friend Freddie Gruber (who sadly passed away at age eighty-four not too long after our conversation; you’ll find a tribute in the February 2012 issue of MD). The Rush rhythm master begins by musing on how all of us drummers share a special bond. Advertisement

Neil: I was just thinking that on tour in the last year, in Brazil and Chile and Britain and Germany and Holland, I’ve done interviews with the local drum magazines. Being the brotherhood of the drum, you always have such a good encounter because you already speak the same language—even if you don’t! Drum journalists…it’s an enthusiasm, you know, and I don’t think that any other hobby, pastime, vocation, whatever you call it, has such tight links as that.

MD: The famous teacher Sam Ulano expressed a similar sentiment to the crowd at the 2011 Modern Drummer Festival, saying something like, “Have you ever heard of a trombone festival”?
Neil: [laughs] I attended the KoSA event in Vermont [last] summer. I was the surprise guest at the end. The same thing—there was such a shared enthusiasm. When I wrote about it after, I said there were so many smiles. Meeting all these people, you already know, Okay, we speak drum. There’s not only a bond but an understanding among a group of people like that that’s really fresh, and contagious.

MD: It also seems to cut across styles in a unique way.
Neil: Oh, enormously. That’s what I loved about KoSA. I said, “You have to let me play djembe,” and I’m awful at djembe. But they had the faculty ensemble, and I played a little kit for a while. And then I was playing away on djembe, and Aldo, the guru of the event, said, “Oh, don’t play so hard—you’ll hurt your hands.” [laughs] I joked in my little testimonial about the event that that hasn’t stopped me for forty years, playing too hard with sticks, hands, and feet. Advertisement

MD: And you’re just off tour, so I guess you’ve still got the calluses.
Neil: Yeah, it’s been about a month or a little more. They remain for a remarkable amount of time. In fact, there are two on my third fingers that I use a lot as a pivot, and they never go away, simply never—little bump there all the time.

MD: You mention calluses in Taking Center Stage, and your tech, Lorne Wheaton, even makes a passing reference to them in his extras interview. I guess that’s an important part of the process, getting those back before a tour.
Neil: It’s the gradual building that matters, because you don’t want blisters and damage, so I just play enough every day, and hard enough, that they gradually become calluses. That’s another reason why I start rehearsing for a tour on my own, before getting together with the whole band.

MD: “Rehearsing to rehearse,” as Geddy calls it.
Neil: Rehearsing to rehearse—nothing wrong with it! Bass players may laugh, but drummers will understand.

MD: Let’s talk a bit about “drum solo week” on Letterman, where you were the finale the first time around. Did you see that they did a second week of solos?
Neil: Oh, yes. That’s great. And I love how the whole thing started too, that apparently Letterman himself was watching some old clips of Buddy Rich and got inspired to revive that. I think Steve Smith remarked that it’s kind of like the old days of Buddy on the Johnny Carson show. Advertisement

MD: They should get Steve for the third installment.
Neil: Well, when they asked me, right away I said that Steve and Danny Carey are among the foremost modern soloists. I said, Steve Smith, just give him a hi-hat and he’ll dazzle the crowd. But yeah, he was one of the first names I mentioned, because I consider him the modern master of soloing in all styles.

MD: Did you do much work in shortening your showcase for the broadcast?
Neil: I never actually played a shortened version; I just mentally worked on it over and over, probably while sitting on my motorcycle on my way to the shows just before that. Play this, not that, and this two times instead of four times…. So I kind of did have it mapped out, but I don’t think it was until the rehearsal the day of the show that we timed it. Because from the time they asked me, they just said, “We want you to play your solo.” I didn’t get suspicious until toward the end. I said, “Wait a minute—they’re not going to give me eight and a half minutes of expensive television time!” So when I asked about it: “Oh yeah, they’d like two, maybe three, minutes.” And your stomach just drops.

But of course I was honored to be a part of drum solo week, and it’s great the people that they’ve added, Gavin [Harrison] particularly, and Stewart [Copeland]—there’s a good buddy of mine. I love to see them getting in there too. Advertisement

MD: Does that eight-and-a-half-minute length remain fairly consistent on tour?
Neil: Within, oh, half a minute, probably. As I mention in the DVD, I’ve been getting a lot more improvisational, but I seem to have a mental clock that shuts me down before I ramble. [laughs] Okay, that’s enough!

I’ve watched some historic solos—John Bonham, for example—and even as a drummer and an admirer, it does get overwhelming. So I appreciate concision. And I think you’re even more critical of yourself in the onstage situation, where I won’t let myself dwell, or I’ll feel like I’m meandering long before I am, so there’s an automatic steering wheel that corrects and keeps you moving.

MD: On Letterman you touched on most of the themes from your full solo.
Neil: Oh, yeah. I really wanted to.

MD: You say on Taking Center Stage that you go to Drum Channel Studios when you want to play, which implies that you’re not playing at home. And Lorne says something similar in his interview. So you just don’t keep a kit set up at home?
Neil: Well, I have from time to time. It’s not like a law. In Toronto I had a basement, and when I was studying with Freddie I used to go down every day and play. But it happened that since I moved out to Los Angeles, houses don’t tend to have basements. I go over to Gregg Bissonette’s house or Doane Perry’s house, and they’ve built these nice soundproof drum rooms. But I move all the time. I’m just about to move again. I never want to settle down and build that kind of a custom scene, because it’s so elaborate and so expensive, and I don’t need it. Advertisement

I’m glad to step away from the drums for a little while when I’m home, and when I get the urge to play, Drum Channel is a beautiful hour’s drive away up the Pacific Coast Highway, so it’s no hardship; it’s a pleasure. It’s very casual and works great for me. There’s no duty to go practice every day, which I don’t need to do in any sense, psychologically or physically.

MD: That’s a great distinction—psychologically or physically.
Neil: I made a comment somewhere about drumming in one of my stories, and Doane Perry remarked on it. I said that when I’m sitting at a light with my turn signal on, that’s a click track, and my fingers start playing. You don’t ever stop being a drummer—that’s absurd psychologically. And Doane said, “I do the same thing. I play a little cadenza on the steering wheel.” Of course. We all do. I’m constantly thinking about rhythms, and there’s always music in my head.

If I do have a goal in mind I absolutely will practice every day. There’s no other way to get it. It’s not like I’m being lazy. Buddy Rich, for example, hated practicing, would never do it, would never rehearse with the band. Well, he was that good. [laughs] That’s all. I know I need to practice, and I do, for whatever purpose—if I’m rehearsing for a tour, if I’m just playing for fun, or if I’m practicing exercises that a teacher gives me. Advertisement

So having drums at home is nice, but it just doesn’t suit my life right now, that’s all. No big principle of: There will be no drums in my house. It’s a drummer’s house, all right—I’ve got a practice pad and a hi-hat and a snare drum, from when I was doing Peter Erskine’s exercises and practicing at home. And there are little hand drums all over the place.

MD: I found it fascinating that you say you don’t count. I figured that with all those different time signatures, at some point you’d need to count things out. Do you ever write out road maps and notes for yourself, not necessarily a chart that you would read?
Neil: Kenny Aronoff, for example, can sit down and write a short little sheet that gives him all the information he needs to do a session, because that’s what he does, that’s his profession. I’ve seen that done, certainly, but I don’t need to. In the old days, we would play a song enough times that I would learn it. Now I spend enough repeats of going over and experimenting with things that I don’t need to count. I know there’s an extra beat coming up, and eventually I’ll intuit that. As I’m learning that arrangement and evolving my drum part I’ll just incorporate that bump: Okay, here it comes… And I’ll take a breath.

So often younger drummers will ask about odd times. And it’s not a secret—of course I had to learn how to count up to seven when I first learned to play 7/8, say, but then I just learned a melody. And with our earlier complex, odd-time-signature instrumentals and all that, if it was an alternating bar of seven and six or something, I would just learn to feel that lilt as a melody, and you can construct fills so much more freely if you learn to think of it that way. So I really did establish that pattern early on. I could learn the songs at my leisure. I wasn’t a session player who had to learn this arrangement now and reproduce it. Advertisement

MD: Were there any unexpected challenges in playing the Moving Pictures album from front to back on the Time Machine tour?
Neil: No, surprisingly not. We had played nearly all of it over the years, and as I remark in the DVD, the one that was never intended to be played live, “Witch Hunt,” was a production number in the studio where my percussion parts were all overdubbed individually, and in one section the whole drum part is actually double tracked. Same with all the keyboard parts. They couldn’t have been reproduced in those days. And then over the years we started playing “Witch Hunt” because we could. I could play a cowbell [sound] with my foot and a conga [sound] with my sticks.

I think we made a few small changes to the arrangement of “Camera Eye” and modernized the keyboard parts as much as we could, because it was the only one that we felt had fallen victim to the ravages of time. That had prevented us from playing it for a long time. But it wasn’t insurmountable; that was a beautiful thing. And once we made those adjustments, we loved playing it.

MD: And your rudimental work during the intro is great to have included on the DVD, because…
Neil: …I don’t get to do that very much. I spent a lot of time on rudiments in the beginning days, on a practice pad and pillow and magazines and everything, so of course I like to use them. And [that section] is nice to play. Advertisement

MD: Seeing all the overhead shots of you on Taking Center Stage, I was wondering how your kit would have looked before you studied with Freddie Gruber and tweaked your setup. Would everything have been pulled in much tighter?
Neil: Yes. Completely different. The space is the most obvious thing, but my snare drum was much lower before, for example. It’s not about the drum, of course, to paraphrase Lance Armstrong; it’s about the motion of your body above the drum. Freddie had me raising my snare drum until it was exactly at the height of my navel. I made the remark in the DVD Work in Progress, I think, that the center of gravity in the male body is the navel. And how perfect that the surface of the snare drum is the dividing line between the upper body and lower body. It makes so much sense.

So by the time I evolved the motions that Freddie was trying to instill in me, yeah, my bass drum moved a little farther away, and my ride cymbal moved over to the left and much more in front of me than it had been before. Each individual thing changed, but it was all about space for motion. Freddie made me aware that I shouldn’t play to the drumset, but the drumset should be set up to my playing. That’s the simple distinction.

MD: You mention “the reward and the sorrow” of live performance. Have the things that bring reward and sorrow shifted at all now that you’re improvising more? What makes a show where you feel great during and after it, or lousy during and after it?
Neil: Well, I’ve written that sometimes I can feel really bad and have a great show, and conversely sometimes I can feel really good and not have a good show. The difference is consistency, and degree. I’m more consistent than I used to be; I make many fewer mistakes. And the ones that I do make are lesser and correctible. That’s another thing you learn through improvising, which I think I refer to in the DVD too: Improvising prepares you to make mistakes and allows you to hear things on two levels—what you’re doing, and then what you might do. Advertisement

So when something goes wrong on stage and maybe the three of us get out of sync by a beat or so, I can hear that, but I can also hear what it ought to be and then make an informed decision on whether I should just jump that beat and go with them or keep the time right and wait for them to realize it and come back to me.

Our band generally has become much more resilient in that way. Inevitably, people are human. And the great thing that’s helped us endure is that we’re all equally human. Oh, I love that. [chuckles] We’re all equally human and make the same number of mistakes. So there’s no recrimination of one guy going, “Hey, you screwed that up tonight!” Because all of us can laugh and say, “Oops, it’s my turn.”

We’re very open about it with each other and say, “I can’t believe I played like such a lunkhead tonight.” And somebody else is saying, “You did? You should’ve heard what I played!” That’s a lovely thing to share, the sense of fallibility. But it’s bolstered by a consistency among us, that we all trust each other to know that we’re mostly going to play it right and once in a while something is going to happen. And then we all kind of look at each other and work together to fix it. That’s a lovely dynamic within the band too, if you think about it—how you react to mistakes. Advertisement

MD: As you’re about to get back to work on the Clockwork Angels album, I wanted to mention Nick Raskulinecz, who’s been the band’s coproducer since Snakes & Arrows. It really seems that he helps to draw some cool stuff out of you.
Neil: Oh, yeah. Working with him was immediately comfortable for us, because he’s aiming at the same place we are: to make the most exciting piece of music we can. What an important choice of word that is—not the most commercial, not the most slick sounding, but the one that fires us up the most. And then bringing in that fresh enthusiasm. Again, the word enthusiasm is so fitting of him. When he gives me these ideas for outrageous fills or soloing over the end of “Far Cry” and all that, I might raise my eyes to heaven, but it’s wonderful. He encourages all of us to get beyond our “humble zone,” our comfort zone. That’s very important too. He loves it as much as we do, and he can play air bass parts or sing the exact phrasing. He knows everybody’s part inside out. It’s remarkable.