I’m all for heroes—people noted for their special achievements. Heroes are inspiring, and there are too damned few of them around today. To steal a phrase from Studs Terkel, today seems to be the “period of the pipsqueak”—a period of small and insignificant people. The pipsqueaks elevate a select few to the status of idol or demigod. They take heroes and turn them into half men/ half gods or into Golden Calves. Rock ‘n’ roll heaven is loaded with musicians who have succumbed to the pressures of being demigods and idols. Starting in the ’50s, I made a list of 74 dead “rock stars. ” Their average lifespan: 31 years. The youngest on the list was 18. The oldest was 47.
In many ways, Neil Peart has been put on that dangerous pedestal and he’s not real excited about it. Neil is excited and grateful, however, that he’s respected for his drumming, songwriting, and his contribution to Rush.
In a 1977 interview, Bob Dylan was asked about heroes. He said, “A hero is anyone who walks to his own drummer.” The interviewer asked, “Shouldn’t people look to others to be heroes?” Dylan replied, “No: When people look to others for heroism, they’re looking for heroism in an imaginary character.”
In Neil, I sensed a strong resistance to becoming an imaginary character. He wants to remain Neil Peart: the guy who plays drums, writes songs and goes home—just another guy doing his day’s work to the best of his ability. The problem with pipsqueaks putting people on pedestals is that soon the adulation turns to chants of “Jump. Jump.”
I’ve known Neil for about three years. I should say I know aspects of Neil. We’ve conversed on the phone many times. I edited his articles for MD and helped coordinate the Neil Peart Drum Giveaway. During this interview, which was done on the last day of Rush’s five-concert series at Radio City Music Hall, it was Neil, my wife and I in a room backstage. Neil, in his last MD interview, said, “You don’t have conversations with your friends about metaphysics, the fundamentals of music and the fundamentals of yourself really.” Well, we spoke about all three of those and it was fun because we disagreed on some fundamental issues. I asked him if he ever asked himself the fundamental question, “Why am I here?” He responded, “You can ask those questions, but what’s the point? The point is I’m here and making the best use of it. There’s a further qualification to that. It’s not ‘why am I here?’ It’s ‘why am I here this way?’ The meaning of why I was born is a simple biological fact. Why am I spending my life in this particular manner? Most times that tends to be a combination of circumstances and drive. The fact that I wanted to be a successful drummer was by no means a guarantee that I was going to be. But circumstances happened to rule that I turned out to be one.”
I’m not a great believer in circumstance. I’m more inclined to agree with what Longfellow wrote in his poem “The Singers.” He wrote, “God sent his singers upon earth/ With songs of sadness and mirth,/ That they might touch the hearts of men,/ And bring them back to heaven again. “
Neil Peart’s lyrics and spoken words are excellent launch pads for further study. I think he ‘d be the first to encourage anyone to study the writers, philosophers and musicians who have inspired him. All artists, it seems to me, would sooner provoke thoughts in their admirers, than attract a group of people who take everything they do or say at face value, or don’t think about it at all.
SF: I was re-reading the lyric sheet from Signals today. Much of what you wrote about made me think of you as the Mark Twain of rock lyrics—writing about Huckleberry Finn- or Tom Sawyer-type characters.
NP: Well, that’s certainly something that I relate to strongly. I basically come from a standard background like that. I grew up in the suburbs, but at the same time, most of my relatives had farms. So every summer or holiday I’d be out at the farm.
I always had a very simple outlook on life as a response to that. When I first got into the big time, I did, and still do, find it very hard to relate to. I love playing drums and I love traveling. But I find a great deal of difficulty dealing with everything that surrounds that. Fame, for me, is embarrassing. It’s not something I get arrogant about. I don’t feel like people are bothering me. But, at the same time, I get embarrassed if strangers walk up to me on the street who think they know me. I just get embarrassed, tense and uncomfortable.
NP: Because it’s unreal! But it’s something that I can never hope to tell people or convince them of. They think they know me. They don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me. They’re strangers. It just makes me defensive.
I like meeting people. I like people. One of my favorite subjects to think and write about is the human race. So I’m not any kind of a misanthrope—a person who hates human beings. I’m not reclusive to that extent. But I am a private person and I’m basically shy with people I don’t know, especially when I can’t meet them on equal terms. If I can meet someone’s friend, or even a stranger, person to person, I get a kick out of that and I enjoy it. But I feel differently when somebody comes up to me with an attitude that I’m something special, or thinks that they know something about me or that—as I read so often in letters—”You and I have a lot in common.” How do you know? I struggled a long time to figure out why it bothered me so much. When I first joined the band, nobody knew who I was because I wasn’t on the first album. There’d be kids hanging around backstage to see Alex and Geddy and not paying any attention to me. But still, the situation would make me feel uncomfortable because it’s not a real relationship. It’s not any kind of a situation you can base a friendship on. You can’t start a friendship with somebody who thinks you’re a plastic figure on some kind of pedestal.
SF: You don’t think that you’ve changed from the kid who was on the farm?
NP: Certainly, in that I’ve broadened. But I don’t think that I have changed my essential nature. I still get excited by and enjoy the same things. I understand things a lot better now, I guess. Thirty years of experience gives you a greater understanding. But I don’t think I’ve become any of the dangerous things that this situation can make you become. That’s something that was a conscious effort for all three of us. We didn’t want to become rock ‘n’ roll cliches. We didn’t want to become isolated people who would feel totally alienated from the human race. That’s what the song “Limelight” is about-the alienation that fans try to force on us. People force us to protect ourselves. They force us to check into hotels under false names. They force us to have security guards to keep people away from us. That was a real shock for us and it was a real hard thing for us to give in to.
In the first four or five years that we were on the road, if I wanted to, I’d walk out of the hotel, walk through the city to the gig and walk in the back door. After the show was over, I’d walk out the back door and walk back to the hotel. I’d get up in the morning and go to work. Then I’d finish work and go back home, just like a normal person. I love that. I love it more because I can’t do it anymore. I resent the fact that I can’t do that now. It’s all because of an unreality that, I guess, was started in the early days of Hollywood, where they created these people who were supposed to be demigods. Then rock ‘n’ roll picked up on that as a marketing tool to make musicians larger than life. It’s something that I try to fight, but you can only fight it so much, because it’s such an ingrained thing in society that somehow entertainers and celebrities are different from everybody else. It’s something I detest. I really hate it. It’s totally unnatural, it’s totally unreal, it makes everyone uncomfortable and it makes everyone alienated.
SF: Do you think that’s what killed Keith Moon?
NP: He’s a bit of a special case. Jimi Hendrix might be a better example of someone who pushed and pushed, and alienated so greatly. For a lot of these people it’s a weakness of character that they possess. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about fame. Fortunately, when we were first starting and opening for different bands, we saw the ways that people dealt with it. There are basically two ways: You can either try to avoid it or you can play it as a role. We saw bands play it as a role. They’d walk out after the show and say, “WE LOVE YOU! YOU’RE WONDERFUL! YOU THINK I’M GREAT? I THINK I’M GREAT TOO!” That’s the choice you have for dealing with it without going crazy. I try to hide from it, basically. I stopped having my picture taken. I stopped being a public figure because I don’t want to have a famous face. I spent all my life learning how to play drums and loving it. Having famous hands is okay, even though that carries its own set of pressures and insecurities. But having a famous face? That’s nothing. I mean, what’s your face? I didn’t work all this time for my face. I don’t think about writing songs for the sake of my face. And I didn’t spend the last 17 or 18 years playing drums to make my face famous. I resent that whole mentality.
I remember saying out loud one day, “I hate being famous.” That was the crux. Yes, you want to be successful in any profession, but take professional architects or doctors. They don’t have thousands of people chasing them around all the time and people they don’t know running up to them on the street. Yes, you want to be successful for the sake of independence. There was a point we reached that was successful enough for the record companies to leave us alone because we were selling enough records. And there’s a certain balance you reach when all of these things become equal. And that’s wonderful; that’s a great period.
But when it goes beyond that, people expect and demand so much of you because you’re not human anymore. “What do you mean you don’t feel good today?” It’s so frustrating. Maybe eight days out of ten you don’t mind meeting people and signing autographs. But maybe one night you don’t want to deal with strangers, you don’t want to see people, or you feel sick. You’re physically sick and you’re only doing the gig because you’re a professional. You’re only going to the gig to do the job. Period. Do you think people understand that? No. If you come out and say, “I don’t feel well. Please leave me alone,” they react with, “Oh wow. Mr. Bigshot. Mr. Big Star. You’re too good to deal with us.” I just don’t understand that. I don’t have that alienation from my side. I still get a pleasure out of answering letters from people. It’s a thing I can do on my time, on my terms and I can feel good about it. When I’m home I’ll write 15 or 20 postcards usually, and answer the mail which I mostly get forwarded from Modern Drummer. It’s a positive thing on both sides. I feel good about it and the person who receives it is going to feel good about it.
In England, where life is even more narrow and circumscribed than here, and those people have nothing to live for but their favorite group, you can’t even open the curtains in your hotel room. You cannot walk out of the hotel. I wouldn’t dream of going for a walk in the afternoon because there’ll be 50 people outside the hotel. If you open your curtains, there’ll be people staring in at you—shamelessly staring into your life. And that’s the kind of thing that infuriates me.
SF: Was there ever a time where you were at a crossroads of pursuing either your writing or your music?
NP: I verge on that from time to time right now. I started as a lyricist totally by accident. I’d literally written two songs just for fun before I joined this band. When I joined Rush, it was actually my predecessor who had written most of the lyrics in the past. Neither Geddy nor Alex was very interested in doing it. I thought, “Well, I’ve always been interested in words and reading and so on. I’ll give it a shot.” I did a couple of things that the guys liked, so it encouraged me to keep going. Now I really enjoy it and get a lot of fulfillment out of it. Over the years, I’ve developed a stronger and stronger interest in prose writing. I’ve pushed myself as a lyricist, just as I did as a drummer, to constantly explore new areas and use different constructions, rhyming patterns and rhythms. There’s a lot really in common between being a lyricist and being a drummer. You’re dealing with mathematical rhythms and phrasing, and you can use the same freedoms of stretching bar lengths. All of that comes into play in writing lyrics. It’s a thing that I still enjoy doing very much. But I have found myself a bit constricted by verse. Lyrics, or any kind of versified poetry, is very concentrated. You have to take things, filter them down and filter them down. Every word has to be of very strong value. The better I’ve gotten, the fewer words I use, because those words become of greater value. I’ve seen that reflected in the best of the modern prose writers too—specifically the American writers of the ’20s and the ’30s.
My favorites of that era are, first, Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, and then F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Hemingway is one of my very favorites, and I like John Steinbeck and John Dos Passes. It’s the Golden Age of Literature, I think, as recognized by most people. If it’s not, it certainly is by me. That’s what I respond to; I would really like to emulate that someday as a prose writer. But I realize that, as long as I’m in Rush, Rush is the first commitment. There’s no way that I can split that 100% commitment.
I’ve tried to devote a week or two every year purely to being a writer. That’s when I’ve done some of the articles for Modern Drummer. I’ve also worked on short stories and started on theoretical novels and so on, just to see what I’d like to do and to see what I do best. I’ve done enough now to know that I would like to give it a stab. And if I could complete one good short story, I’d feel like a real writer. But to do a novel or a series of short stories takes a 100″% commitment, and I don’t want to compromise what I’m doing as a musician by any means. But at a certain point as a musician you reach the law of diminishing returns. To me, improvement has always been the measurement of how well I’m doing. At the end of every tour I can say, “Okay, I’ve learned this and this specific rhythmic idea, and I’ve improved this much.” Then we do an album and that’s like final exams. A record defines you at your absolute best. With everything that you can do technically, the studio can represent you at a better-than-human perfection. So, for me, on the tour following an album, I’m trying to live up to that set of standards. And every night I go on stage trying to play every song as good as it is on the record. That’s just a totally involved commitment.
But, with the law of diminishing returns, I’ve gotten to the point now where my level of improvement has slowed down. It was easy when we first got together. We weren’t that good and I wasn’t that good. So it was easy for us to im prove, and we improved by leaps and bounds. Every album was a major step in terms of progressing as a band and as individual musicians. We’ve gotten to the point now—no false humility or arrogance—where we are pretty good as musicians, and we’ve gotten good at writing songs and interpreting them. We can take a particular mood or emotion that we want to express, and we have enough technique, empathy and pathos now that we can do it. I find that, at the end of the tour now, where I used to have five or six new rhythmic areas that I would explore during that tour, now I might have one or two. And I might only learn one or two new things because of that law of diminishing returns. So it has become a little less fulfilling in terms of progression.
I’m still very satisfied when I walk offstage thinking that I played well. And I’m still very unhappy and frustrated when I walk off stage thinking that I haven’t played well. But the progression isn’t as vast now. Consequently, the gratification isn’t as immediate and it isn’t as constantly renewing. So I think there will come a time when I’m as good as I can ever be and I’ll have to say, “Okay, I can live on this for a while”—like a lot of musicians do. They work themselves up to a certain level and then they survive on that level for as long as they can. I don’t think I would work that way because I have another goal. Writing has become another goal for me. I can measure my improvement in writing as I used to be able to do with drumming five or six years ago, and that’s exciting. I get that buzz from writing now that drumming has always provided me with. So there’s a bit of a conflict now, even though my commitment is really 100% as a musician. But in the back of my mind there’s a future goal: I really want to, one day, write just one good short story.
SF: What would you like to write about?
NP: I want to write about being a musician, because it’s never been done. People outside music, who are good writers, have tried to write about it. But because they are writers and not musicians, they don’t really understand the essential mentality of it and the gears that make it move. They don’t know what it’s like to really be a musician. So I would like someday to refine my ability and technique as a writer to be able to express what it’s like to be a musician. I would like to write about being a young musician playing at a high school dance, and I would like to write about a really successful musician in the middle of a tour at this level. It’s a hard thing to be able to find a way to write about that in a literary sense. I don’t want to write popular “pop” stories as a musician. I want to be really great at it. I want to reconcile my experience. When you start, the only thing to write about is what you know. Then, as your technique develops, you can try to write about something you don’t know anything about.
If people could understand what it’s like to be a musician—if they would understand that a musician is someone who gets up in the morning, goes to work, finishes work and goes home—it would get rid of that alienation. There’s that elemental thing. I’ve done a lot of other jobs. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I didn’t become a professional musician overnight. When I was 18, I went to England with musical motivations and goals. But when you go out into the big world, as any adult knows, you’re in for a lot of disillusionment. So while I was there I did a lot of other things to get bread in my mouth. When I came back from there, I was disillusioned basically by the music “business.” I decided that I would be a semi-pro musician for my own entertainment, would play the music that I liked to play, and wouldn’t count on it to make my living. I did other jobs and worked at other things, so that I wouldn’t have to compromise what I liked to do as a drummer. There’s a choice there. If you’re a musician you can say, “I don’t care what I have to do. I’m going to make my living as a musician.” Therefore you’ll be happy to play in any kind of band as long as you’re playing your instrument. I know musicians like that and I don’t knock it. There are two different kinds of personalities at work there. I know people who want to be session musicians because they don’t like to travel. They like to stay at home, and they like the familiarity and the security of that. So consequently, yes, that’s the perfect place for them to be.
Conversely, there are people who think that it’s incumbent upon them as a matter of pride to make their living as musicians. To me, it’s a matter of pride to play the music I love. That’s the essence of it. So I never felt that it was a compromise to have a day job in order to pay my bills, and at night, to work in a bar band that played the music I liked to play or just to put a band together in my spare time that played music I liked. I don’t care about being a professional musician necessarily, because there are other things that I can do, and other things that are satisfying to do. Music is something that I would never stop doing. I’m sure I’ll never stop playing drums. But at a certain period in my life it will not be the focus. It’ll be a hobby. And in some ways it’s a nicer thing to play drums for the joy of it rather than because you’re obliged to.
Let’s face it: Out of a tour of 150 or 200 shows, not every one of those is going to be exactly where I want to be that night. There have been times where I’ve been on stage thinking, “I’d rather be anywhere in the world than here.” And other times when I’ve been sitting on stage saying, “I’d rather be here than anywhere else.” There are extremes. Again, as with any job, some days you like it and some days you hate it. That’s another thing people don’t understand. They think it’s always a wonderful joy, everything is looked after for you, you don’t have to worry about a single thing, and it must be wonderful to sit in front of people who love you. It just doesn’t work that way. No one’s life is perfect. There is no paradise.
I worry about a lot of things. I carry the world on my shoulders sometimes. It’s almost like the joke Woody Allen made in Annie Hall: “As long as I know there’s somebody in the world suffering, I can’t be happy.” It’s true. There’s a compassion in that. Sometimes I think about a city like New York. There’s an exciting, glamorous aspect to New York and there’s a tremendously sordid, horribly brutal, disgustingly inhuman side to it too. And when I go by those buildings I think, “Okay. Here’s a building where 500 people live or work. What are their lives like?” They come here every single morning and fight their way through the war of rush hour. They go to that little office and do meaningless things all day. Then they fight their way back home again at night and watch TV, or go to a bar and get drunk. Then they come back the next morning. You have to re spond to that. You have to be compassionate about that. You have to say that time, as a moving, circular thing sometimes runs people down and ruins people’s lives.
One of the new songs that we’ve done, “Between The Wheels,” says, “The wheels can take you around/ or the wheels can cut you down.” There are those two things. A lot of people aren’t run down by time, and they aren’t pushed by time. They’re just in the middle. Everything rolls right by them.
SF: But isn’t that their choice?
NP: Well, it’d be nice to think so. If you take a hardline, libertarian mentality about it—yeah. You could say that. But a lot of times it’s circumstances, or whatever intangible thing you call it. Fate. There’s a thing I’m fond of quoting that’s been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although I’ve never been able to nail it down, and I’ve read all his books. “There are no failures of talent, only failures of character.” It refutes that statement that “There are a thousand good musicians in the world and you just happened to get lucky” or “There are probably drummers in India who are better than you, but because they’re in India, they’ll never get anywhere.”
With a lot of the great musicians that I know who didn’t get anywhere, there’s a reason why. Either they can’t live with themselves, or no other musician can stand to work with them. It’s a flaw of character. It’s not the fact that they’re not talented. They’re great. They’re emotive, they move people and they have everything that great musicians need to have. But nobody can stand to live with them in the way that a professional musician has to live with other musicians. It’s a tremendously insular, familial kind of world.
SF: If they realized the character flaw, could they change it?
NP: Do you think that’s possible if someone has a little pool of poison in their mind, that causes them to take it out on someone else whenever they’re feeling a little insecure?
SF: I think they could do it. It’s more difficult for some than for others.
NP: There’s always a price to pay, too. I have a little poison pit like that: temper. When I was a teenager, I recognized that I had a bad temper, and set out consciously to control it and keep it back. Consequently, yes, I do that. When I get angry I don’t yell at people. I don’t freak out. But I pay for that inside. I carry that with me and I get knots of tension through the course of a tour—through the course of any situation where I have to deal with people on a daily basis and there’s constant interaction. And it hurts me. It makes me uncomfortable where I don’t need to be uncomfortable. It makes me nervous when I don’t need to be nervous. But I probably wouldn’t have been together with these two guys for nine years if I hadn’t learned to control that. You can’t just build the foundation for the kind of relationship that we have, based upon swearing at each other. You have to base it on respect and you have to maintain that respect. You can never afford to lose control at somebody. You might feel remorse for it and say, “I’m sorry I did that.” It doesn’t matter. It’s always there.
Our band has a very special relationship. I see a lot of other bands at our level, and they literally are never together except when they have to be. They’ll even be recording an album and never all be in the studio at the same time. And when they’re on the road, they don’t travel together. They have different dressing rooms. I couldn’t go on in a relationship like that. We have an equal share in everything. We collaborate on the arrangements. If I write something they don’t like, they say so. If I can fix it so they’ll like it—fine. If I can’t, I keep it in my notebook. You have to open yourself up. When I bring a new idea to those guys, it’s a very vulnerable thing. I’m a bit tense about it because I’m baring my soul. “Here’s something I worked on and believe in. What do you guys think?” If they like it—great. But if they have doubts of any kind, there’s a bit of insecurity and vulnerability involved there. It’s incumbent upon them—or me in the opposite circumstance—to be very careful about that. You have to say, “There’s something about this that doesn’t ring true.” It’s important to be specific too. They can say, “I like what you’re trying to say here, but a couple of lines are a little bit obscure or could mislead people. A cynical person could read something totally different into it.” I have to respond to that and say, “Yeah, that’s true,” and I go back to the drawing board. There’s a give and take that’s really critical to us. We’re very rare in that respect.
Almost every successful band you can think of has one person. That person either writes all the songs, or if that isn’t admitted and they say that the songs are written by the whole band, there’s one member who really is the original essence of that band. That person gives them their character, direction and originality. That’s got to be really hard to live with. That’s where all these solo albums, musical differences and euphemisms of modern rock ‘n’ roll come about—because of that ego conflict of, “I’m not happy to be just a guitar player, drummer or whatever. I want to be the main one.” So the democracy that we’ve been fortunate enough to have is a real democracy in that sense. Majority does rule, but it’s always the majority of interested parties. It’s never one person. It’s always a congruence of different people’s ideas. Then you can say, “No, that’s not a good idea,” throw it away, and no one’s feelings are hurt. Everyone has agreed upon it. Everyone has given something to it, and everybody agrees that it’s no good. That’s fine. But when one member brings something in and everybody else is negative about it, that causes tremendous conflicts. In a lot of bands today, the problem is that they all don’t have equal abilities or equal input.
SF: And yet in some bands the whole is greater than the parts.
NP: The synergistic idea—that’s certainly true of us. The important thing about that, again, is that we are all equal as musicians. We all make the same number of mistakes. We’ve all grown at the same pace. We’ve all been very, very concerned about progressing. We all want it to get better and better. Fortunately we all get better at the same pace. I’ve been in other bands where everybody wanted to get better, but half the band was getting better a lot faster than the other half. That causes a tremendous rift. We’ve all had an equal input in the writing and in the day-to-day business of running the band, and we’ve all improved at the same rate. But we make enough mistakes to be human—enough that we can be equal and we can all laugh about it. That’s important because I get embarrassed when I make a mistake. I hate making mistakes. It’s the worst thing. When I make one, I can’t laugh about it immediately. At first it’s like, “Oh shit.” And then I have to try to get myself back into the flow and try not to over concentrate, because that makes you over compensate, and that just makes you make four or five more mistakes. When we walk on stage, we try to just set the flow. The thing should just flow out of you in a natural sort of way. In the middle of that, if I do something by accident—like a drumstick breaking at the wrong time which puts me in the wrong place—that just makes me uneasy and embarrassed. Then suddenly I do another stupid thing and then another stupid thing. Then it’s like, “Get me away from here!” But in the normal course of things, each of us has breakdowns. And it’s not hard for any of us to admit it because it’s not always the same guy. It’s not always me saying, “Oh, I made a stupid mistake again. Sorry guys. Let me play again tomorrow night and I’ll try to do better.” It’s important that none of us feel downgraded by it. That equality is very important.
SF: A lot of your lyrics are said by many to be inspired by Ayn Rand.
NP: Yeah. That’s sort of a convenient post to latch on. It’s like the science fiction label. I’m not as big an Ayn Rand fan as I’m made out to be. Our album 2112 happened to be based around, in a coincidental way, the circumstances of one of her stories. I gave due credit to that. I realized that, as our story progressed about the rediscovery of creative music in the future, her story happened to be about the rediscovery of electricity in some totalitarian future. I didn’t set out to adapt that story into a musical format. But the story of 2112 developed, and then I realized that it paralleled the circumstances of her story.
So it’s an easy thing for people to fix on. The song “Science Fiction” happened to be set in the future. I happened to have done two or three other pieces that were set in the future. Out of all the pieces we’ve written and out of the ten albums we’ve made, perhaps a total of two-and-a-half albums have had to do with the future or anything that could be called science fiction. If people aren’t really into your mu sic, but they’re forced to write about it, then they pick up on what they can get easily: superficially. It’s the whole labeling aspect that any number of musicians of whatever school have complained about.
SF: In Harry Shapiro’s book called A-Z of Rock Drummers, he eluded to many of your lyrics as being “fascist.”
NP: I’ve never written anything political. I’m an apolitical person really. If I’m interested in anything, I’m interested in the philosophies that bring about those political schools of thought. I don’t write about politics. Sometimes I write about philosophy. Ayn Rand, for instance, has been cat egorized as being a fascist writer. Consequently, if I admit any influence from her. . . John Dos Passos was known as a radical left-wing writer in the ’20s. “The Camera Eye” was directly influenced by him. But at the same time, nobody calls me a Communist. I’m influenced by these people because they’re great writers, not because of their politics. I am an Individualist. I believe in the greatness of individual people. That’s not anti-populist or antihuman. When the lights come on behind us and I look out at the audience and see all those little circles, each of those circles is a person. Each person is a story. They have circumstances surrounding their lives that can never be repeated. In the song “Entrenue,” the introduction says, “We are secrets to each other/ Each one’s life a novel that no one else has read.” That’s the essence of it, really. All those people have a whole novel about their lives—the time they were born, how they grew up, what they did and what they wanted to do, their relationships with other people, their romances and marriages—all those things. And they are individuals. That’s what I respond to. They’re not a mob. They’re not a crowd. They’re not some lower class of degenerates. They’re individuals.
I’m always playing for an individual. I don’t play for the crowd—for some faceless ideal of commerciality of some lowest common denominator. It’s a person up there every night, who knows everything I’m supposed to do. If I don’t do it, that person knows it. It’s like I have a judge on my shoulder, in the old Anglo-Saxon way, who watches everything I play. If I play it right, my judge says “Not bad.” And if I play it wrong, it’s “You jerk.” That individual is the person I play for every night.
If you play for a crowd, then you pander, basically, to a mentality or a lowest common denominator. You basically say, “If I play something simple but make it look good, then these people are going to be impressed. We’ll shoot off a bunch of pots and wear flashy outfits and all the other stuff.” That’s fascism, basically. The rest of the world is a mob and you’re the only individual. But if you have the values of any decent musician, you could never play for “a mob.” Then you don’t become a musician. You become some kind of entertainment marketing director. It’s not musicianship anymore.
SF: How do you feel about the kids who come to your concerts wasted?
NP: Well, it’s sad. I don’t know. You can never really understand the reasons for it. I can’t say that I could sit with those people and necessarily carry on a conversation. It’s a sad thing.
SF: You don’t feel that your music contributes to that?
NP: No, I don’t think I can take that responsibility. I have the responsibility subsequent to that judge on my shoulder. If I walk off stage thinking that I haven’t pleased that objective standard, I feel bad. If I walk off stage feeling that I haven’t played very well or didn’t really live up to any set of standards, then I feel very badly indeed. On the other hand, regardless of whether the whole audience is wiped out of their minds, if I go on and know that I’m really living up to my own standards and playing to the standards I go on stage with every night, then I feel good about it. I can’t judge by the fact that somebody in front of me is really drunk, but thinks it is great. You can’t go by that.
SF: When a person listens to your albums or attends your concerts, do you have an ideal that you hope they can walk away with?
NP: Sure. You have the ideal listener. The person I play for every night is that person. We make a record for the person who buys it, goes home, puts on headphones, sits there with the lyric sheet, follows along with every word and hears every note that we do, understands what we’re trying to do, and understands whether we’ve achieved it or not. Yes, there is an ideal listener who probably doesn’t really exist. But he or she is the person that you aim for. It ties exactly back to the standard we aim for. I think it does have a subliminal effect on people. The fact that we are so well regarded as a live band has to reflect that set of standards. Regardless of whether we’re playing in Igor, Indiana, or if we’re playing at Radio City Music Hall, the same amount goes into that show every night. I walk on stage with the same mentality and the same urge to really do well. It’s a fundamental truth about us, and I think it has to do with the fact that a lot of people consider Rush first and foremost a live band. That’s wonderful. The essence of a musician is a live performer—a person playing an instrument on stage.
When you make a record, it represents only one performance. But when you try to duplicate that performance, that can be hundreds and hundreds of times. Some of the songs that we’re playing now are five, six, seven, eight and nine years old. You have to bring something fresh to them every year. And you have to play that with true conviction every night. We’ve dropped songs that were very popular and people expected us to play forever. There comes a day when we have to say, “We have nothing to say with this song anymore. We can’t play it with conviction.” Otherwise, it becomes like a joke—like we’re taking advantage of people or we’re pandering to them. We can’t do that, so we drop the song. And we take a lot of flak for it. People say, “Well, why didn’t they play more old songs?” It’s because we can’t do that honestly. We can’t play “Fly By Night” or “Workingman” anymore with any conviction.
There are some songs that do survive. They are challenging enough or self-representative enough that we can say, “Yes, that song still represents how we feel as musicians, as people, and we’re still proud arid happy to play that.” But there are other things that you grow out of. There are things on our last album that we’ve grown out of already and we’ll never play again. It stands to reason that there are things we did six or seven years ago that are still relevant to us and we still get joy out of playing. Consequently, the audience gets pleasure out of it. So there’s both truth and beauty there. And that’s the important thing. You can’t say, “Well, these people have been listening to this song for eight years and they expect you to play it. You’ve got to play it.” That’s a lot of people’s mentality. We get that pressure, sometimes, directed right at us. “Why didn’t you play that song?” Because we can’t honestly play it for you anymore. If we played it, it would be a lie. And you don’t want us to lie to you. We don’t lie to our audience on any level. When we make our records or play in concert, that same set of standards comes to the stage with us. We’re not there to play a role.
SF: You’ve mentioned Keith Moon, Michael Giles and Bill Bruford as influences. Have you ever met any of those people?
NP: No, actually I never met any of my real drumming idols.
SF: If you had the opportunity to sit down and speak with them what would you ask them about? Would you ask about equipment?
NP: Probably not. I might discuss it with somebody I work with on a regular basis, such as the drummer from a band that we tour with. Drummers automatically seem to have some kind of affinity for each other, so we might talk about equipment and technical things, given an already existing personal relationship. But if I met another drummer I respected, we’d probably talk about books, movies, sailing, or any point of interest that we had in common, because at a certain point, especially when you do become well known, you get tired of it. There was a time when I was happy to sit and talk about drums all day and all night. But you can only say the same thing so many times. When you already have a friendly relationship with someone, you wouldn’t talk about the prosaic everydayness of, “Yes, I use a Clear Dot Remo head on my snare.” You’d talk about, “Well, how do you think it would affect my snare sound if I used a different type of head?” You’d talk about theoretical things, or you’d talk about other things. One of my very best friends is a drummer who’s very classically schooled, and also grew up in Africa, so he has that whole different input on things. He can give me a whole different insight, and we’ll talk about that in theory. We don’t talk about what kind of pedals we use, but we’ll say, “Well, I’ve been trying this lately and it didn’t really work for me. You try it and see what you think.” Equipment will be come a fact of everyday life, like dishwashing detergent or car wax.
There was a time, like I said, when I’d always be glad to talk to a drummer anytime. But you can only hear so many times, “Hi, I’m a drummer like you.” And from the way people say it, you’re supposed to be impressed by that and you’re supposed to welcome them into your life—invite them home for supper and all that—just because they’re drummers.
SF: I think statistics have shown that there are three million drummers.
NP: There you go. I’m supposed to have a brotherly affinity with three million people. And that ties in perfectly with the fact that I’m also supposed to have some kind of affinity with the two million people who buy our records.
A lot of people think that the equipment is an integral part of the style, when really the equipment is only an expression. It’s not an influence. It doesn’t affect the way I play. It’s an expression of the way I play. I choose my drums and equipment because of a vision I have inside—because of a goal I’m trying to achieve in expression. It’s not what kind of hammers and nails you use; it’s the vision you have of the perfect thing you want to build with those tools. I can’t imagine that carpenters spend much time talking about different hammers and nails, or that doctors talk about scalpels, or auto mechanics talk about different wrenches. That’s got to be pretty limited. I have to think that, when auto mechanics get to gether, they’re more interested in the completed car.
That’s an essential analogy that really holds water. If I met one of those drum mers, we might talk about reggae music. I’m not interested in becoming a reggae drummer by any means, but it happens to be a rhythmic area that I respond to strongly. If I met another drummer who said, “I love Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Third World,” then we’d have something to talk about right there. We wouldn’t talk about what kind of snare stand is the strongest.
I’ve just come to understand that recently because equipment was always very interesting. I’ve always had an affinity for drums as a physical thing—the combination of circles and lines; the way drums look; the way they’re made. There is something about that that’s good. I’ve always been really interested in hardware. I try to always investigate new things, and I try to be interested in new equipment.
SF: What was your role in the creation of Tama Artstar drums?
NP: Basically, when we were mixing our live album, we had a lot of spare time. I don’t like just sitting around. They had an old set of Hayman drums sitting around the studio. I thought, “I’m going to restore those.” I took them all to pieces, cleaned all the crud off and put them back together, got new heads for them and tuned them. Once I had restored them, we recorded a couple of demos and they just sounded so great. They had so much pure tonality. I put the heads on them that I normally use, and I tuned them the way I normally tune. The only difference was that the shells were very thin. I equated that with violins or guitars. It’s the thinness and consistency of the wood that gives the character of the sound, its resonance and the true quality of a classical instrument.
I started thinking about why drums keep getting thicker. Why does it give you status to say, “I have 12-ply drums”? That was just people barking up a tree. It was saying that more is better—that thicker is better. That’s wrong. When you have a resonant acoustical instrument, the wood has to resonate. Therefore, the thicker and more dense it is, the less it’s going to resonate. So I wanted to get a thinner-shelled drum. I knew Tama didn’t make one, so I talked to Neil Graham at The Percussion Center. He’s kind of my equipment mentor as far as that goes. I talked to him about my theory that thin drums will sound better. We talked about it a bit and I thought, “Well, I could go to Gretsch or the other traditional companies that still make thinner shells.” Neil said, “Well, I ‘ l l talk to Tama and see what they’ll do.” They were cooperative enough to make me a four-ply version of their normal six-ply set, and asked me to keep quiet about it. They did have the quality I was looking for. They were more resonant and their voice was more throaty somehow. ” Voice” is the operative word. They had more of a voice; they were more expressive.
I expressed my gratitude to Neil Graham, talked to Ken Hoshino at Tama and said, “These are great—just what I was looking for. You really should consider making them for jazz players. The jazz purists have stuck with Gretsch and the oldstyle thinner shells for that reason. They want that. They don’t want big, thick, heavy, dead-sounding drums.” We talked back and forth a bit, and then I heard that they were going to market them as a series of special shells. Ken Hoshino brought me the basic layout of that ad with the picture. The copy hadn’t been written. He asked, “What do you think we should put there?” I said, “I’ve run into problems with that with other companies. I’ve given them a quote to work from, and they misquote it or twist it around to make it a little more favorable. This time I’ll write it myself.” I thought I’d try writing an advertisement about why I wanted this kind of drum, why I think they’re great and how it all came about. They were glad to have me do it, I guess.
One of the statements I made in that ad copy was about listening to old big band drummers and the old records, where they were basically recorded with only one microphone. That microphone was also picking up the whole rhythm section and probably half of the horns. There is a character to those drums. You can hear when they hit it hard, as opposed to when they hit it quietly. You can hear the energy in there. With modern close miking and noise gating, you lose all that. The difference between me hitting my snare drum quietly and whacking it to death in the studio gets minimized. The dynamics get lost and it’s frustrating. I hear my drums a certain way. It’s the sound I’m trying to get on records. It never seems to be captured by microphones regardless of different techniques we’ve tried.
On Moving Pictures, I had a PZM microphone taped to my chest to try to capture my perspective of the drumset. Yes, it added to it and it helped to apply that special dynamic that I hear. But still, I’ve never heard my drums recorded the way I hear them.
SF: Did you change the miking techniques in the studio when you used the Artstar drums?
NP: No. In the studio we try to cover all angles. We use close miking, but usually there are also several different types of ambient miking. When it comes down to the mixing stage, we’ll try different combinations of the close miking and a bit of the different ambiences from all of those other mic’s.
SF: Have you ever tried no close miking—just room mic’s?
NP: We’ve done that for special effects. On one of our earlier albums, there was a part that was just drums. We used one microphone about 30 feet away from the drumset. It sounded great, but we couldn’t blend it with other instruments. It’s so ambient and so big sounding that there was no room for anything else. In that case, it was okay because it was just drums; the other instruments were incidental to the drums. But there’s just no way, when you create that big of a sound, that you can squeeze other things in there as well and still maintain the integrity of that sound.
It’s generally acknowledged that drums are the hardest thing in the world to record. That’s almost a cliche by this point, but it’s true. It’s so hard to get drums to sound like they really sound.
SF: Are there any drummers you’ve heard on record where you’ve thought, “I wish my drums could sound like that”?
NP: No. I think that we have achieved as good as what I’ve ever heard from anybody else. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the ultimate. On Moving Pictures or Signals, at its best, the drum sound is as good as I’ve ever heard anywhere, given the character. If you have a dinky little guitar and keyboards and stuff, and nothing to interfere with the drum sound, then yeah, the drums sound more present. But then it’s just a matter of what else you’re including them with. See, my drums always sound wonderful on basic tracks. When they’re first recorded and there’s just bass there and a guide guitar, the drums sound incredible. But as soon as you start putting in a big guitar sound, a big keyboard sound, a big vocal sound and try to make everything work together, which obviously is the most important thing… See, the crucial, number one point is not to make the drums sound good. It’s to make everything sound good. When it comes to that point, the sound gets lost.
NP: Because there are so many things fighting for the same space. In modern music, a big guitar sound covers a broad frequency range, from the high end to the very bottom. Consequently, a good guitar sound will mask all of that from the drum sound. It’s a bit of a struggle, really. When you hear a band that has a small guitar sound or a narrow keyboard wash over the top of the drums, then yes, the drums can speak through, perhaps closer to their true representation.
SF: Are you still using your Slingerland wood snare with the Artstar drums?
NP: Yeah. It’s ironic, because it’s not even the top-of-the-line Slingerland. It’s their second one down. I don’t know what it’s called. I bought it secondhand for $60.00. It was the first wooden snare I ever owned. I’d always used metal ones before that and had never been totally satisfied. Then we picked up this wooden snare and it was perfect. It was the one. Then I thought, “Well, if this isn’t even the top-of-the-line wooden one, I must be able to get something better.” So I got the top-of-the-line wooden Slingerland, and I’ve tried several of the wooden Tama ones. I even have the twin to that $60.00 snare behind me for the other kit. Everything’s identical, but it just doesn’t sound the same.
I think somebody who had this snare before me did a modification on the bearing edge of the snare side. Someone filed the bearing edge where the snares go across. It’s murder on snare heads because it makes the tension very uneven, but the snare never chokes. I can play it however delicately or however hard, and it will never choke.
SF: Have you ever had Tama try to duplicate that drum?
NP: No. Basically I’ve just tried what Tama makes. They either sound good loud or they sound good soft. None of them have the versatility that my snare has. I haven’t pursued it that much because my snare makes me happy as it is. I’m not looking for something better, really.
SF: Is the inside of the snare Vibrafibed?
NP: No. I’ve never fooled around with it. I was even afraid to get it painted. For a long time it was copper colored. When I had the black drums or even when I had the rosewood Tamas, it didn’t matter so much. It looked okay. When I got the red drums, the copper started to look a bit tacky, but I was even afraid to get it painted because disassembling it, painting it, and putting it back together might have affected it.
I think Slingerland probably still makes that snare. I still have one of their top wooden snares too. It’s good. I have a Gretsch wooden snare, and it’s also a good wooden snare.
Whenever I’ve had a set of wooden drums, of course, because they’re wood, no two drums are exactly the same. Drums number one and number two would be great, but number three would be a little bit deader. With the Vibrafibing, I don’t lose the tonality or expressiveness of wooden drums, but it evens out these inconsistencies. Consequently, my four closed tom-toms all have the same timbre to them. They have the same effect when I hit them. That’s the big advantage. It doesn’t really change the sound so much as it makes all the drums sound like they belong in the same drumset.
This summer, I introduced an alternate drumset into my regular drumset. I’m using Simmons drums, but I didn’t want to incorporate them into my regular drums. I didn’t want to get rid of my traditional closed tom-toms because they are a voice. Those speak in a way that the Simmons do not. While the Simmons have a certain power and a certain dynamic quality that I like, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my acoustic drums. So I hit on the idea of having two complete drumsets. I can turn around and I have a little 18″ bass drum back there, another snare drum, another ride cymbal and the Simmons tom-toms. It doesn’t interfere with the basic relationship I have with my acoustic drums, but it gives me a new avenue of expression. And I’ve come to realize the limitations of the Simmons as far as expression is concerned. There are certain things they can do and certain things they can’t. So when I’m playing with that little drumset, I have to play, necessarily, in a different sort of way. I can’t play some of the kinds of patterns that I would normally play because they don’t work. Those drums will not speak in the same way that I can make a 9 x 13 double-headed tom-tom speak. With the Simmons I can get a roar. I can get a whisper and a roar out of a 9 x 13 tom-tom.
SF: The Simmons won’t respond to touch?
NP: They have a sensitivity control. You can turn it down or up. If you hit it light, it will make the sound; if you hit it hard, it will make the sound. But it’s still that sound. With a regular tom-tom, the harder I hit it, the more that head is going to stretch, and it’s going to detune itself. They have that in the Simmons. They call it “bend.” But once you put that “bend” in there, it’s in there. With the regular tom-tom, there are subtle gradations of physical input depending on how much I put that stick into the head. I can see the marks on my drumheads sometimes where literally four or five inches of that drumstick are making contact with that head. I’m hitting it so hard and stretching that head so much that the stick literally goes right into it. But that was the sound I was after and it’s the sound that the Simmons drums try to imitate. It’s that throaty quality of tuning the drum high and then hitting it hard so that the head stretches and detunes. You, in effect, get several notes at once. You get the initial high impact and then it descends. That’s the essence of the Simmons sound. You can tune that “bend” in and you can tune sensitivity in, but you can’t have it all at once. On an acoustic drum you have all of that there. I can play a triplet on an acoustic drum and have three different sounds by altering the attack. If you play a triplet on a Simmons, the three notes will all sound identical.
But for me it’s a positive thing. I approach the Simmons knowing that. I can tune them the way I would like them to sound and I can play them with that limitation in mind. So I play a different way, and that’s healthy too. I like the idea of having two completely different drumsets, because the reverse drumset is a basic small bass drum and snare drum. I always used 18″ bass drums until I joined this band. I’ve always loved them and the cannonlike punch that they have. An 18″ bass drum is a very, very expressive instrument. I’ve found that, for the greatest range of expression, for me, a 24″ bass drum has more voices. It can go literally, again, from a whisper to a roar, and everything in between. An 18″ bass drum has one neat sound that I like—a sort of nice, real strong gut punch.
So when I turn around I have a single bass drum, hi-hat, snare, four Simmons tom-toms and a few cymbals. It’s a very simple, basic drumset. What people sometimes fail to realize about a large drumset like I use is that drumming always revolves around bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat. And your fills always revolve around two tom-toms and your snare. For anything else, you take those patterns and transfer them to some little drums, or translate them to some different voices. It gives you something different out of the same old patterns, or the same rudiments of set drumming. That’s basically the reason why I expanded my kit, especially being in a three-piece band. The more voices I have, the better. By the same token, I always understood the fact that all my drumming does revolve around a very small set of drums. Being able to have that l i t t l e , concise set of drums behind me has proved invaluable, even in rehearsals. If we’re going over a song again and again and again, instead of getting tired of it and just crank ing it out, I can turn around and play the other set. It changes the whole thing and makes it fresh again. It’s been a revitalizing thing for me. It’s something that I think I will pursue further.
SF: What have you been using headphones on stage for?
NP: The headphones are basically for when we use programmed sequencers or the synthesizers that are driven by arpeggiators. They’re basically triggered by a drum machine with a click-track pulse. Then the arpeggiator picks that up. The song on Signals called “The Weapon” is based around an arpeggiator. Ironically, usually drummers are used to a band that follows them. If I tend to feel that something should be pulled back a bit or anticipated a bit, the band follows me. When you use something that’s as mathematical as a sequencer or an arpeggiator, there’s no way those machines are going to follow you. You have to follow them. I can use the headphones to give me that trigger with a sequencer in “Vital Signs” and with an arpeggiator in “The Weapon.” I have to hear that and follow it, basically. I have to swallow my pride and be a little subservient to the machine.
Playing with headphones is not the same as playing without them. I have to use my imagination. The essence of having an imagination is that sometimes I’ve recorded a song all by myself, such as “YYZ” from our Moving Pictures album. When we did the basic track, it was just me. I went in there and played the drum track. The other guys’ parts were very difficult. We figured it would make more sense if I recorded my track and then gave them a chance to work on their parts without the pressure of all of us having to do it at the same time. I had to have enough imagination to hear the song in my head and respond to all those dynamics and nuances.
With headphones on, drums do not sound like drums. Period. That’s certainly a fact. But the essence of it is that I know what my drums sound like, and I know that if I play a certain pattern it has such and such an effect on people—a certain excitement, drama or whatever. And when I have the headphones on, yes, I have to use my imagination. It is, in a sense, a limitation, that in order to be able to follow those things effectively, I have to be able to hear them well. And the most sensible way to do that is through headphones. I just decided that it’s not going to make me play worse. It’s just going to make me have to work harder, because when I have those headphones on, I’m going to have to think about what my playing really sounds like. I can’t be lazy and just hear it. I have to think about it and imagine it. It is a hard thing. But at the same time, it became a whole series of progressions that we had to make, so as not to add another musician.
SF: I was going to ask if you’d ever considered adding more musicians.
NP: Certainly we have, as a band that wants to keep improving and changing our sound. But the interpersonal chemistry among us happens to be such that we didn’t want to tamper with that. We didn’t want to take a chance on adding another person because we get along well. We have a good balance of responsibilities. Also, we basically like being a trio. I think that our audience likes us being a trio and they’re proud of—as we are proud of—how much music we can create and how different we can sound being just three guys. That’s something that we have to live with. We’re going to have to make certain allowances for that; we’re going to have to use sequencers and all kinds of interphased keyboards. We’re going to have to have Alex and Geddy rooted to certain things at certain times for them to be able to cover all those bases. And anything I can do to help that along is just icing. It’s the least I can do.
An example is when I added tuned percussion to my drumset. I’m by no means a classical percussionist. I can’t say that I have any kind of understanding of tuned percussion. But I can learn a part and play it. It adds something to the overall texture of the band. It’s been the same thing in the last few years with electronics. It would be easy for me to say, “Oh well, I don’t work with headphones on.” That contradicts the whole purpose of what we are as a band. I can’t take that kind of a hard line. I’ve said before, too, that I don’t like the idea of electronics as in electronic drums. I was a bit of a purist, in a sense, saying that I like acoustic drums. But I found a way to incorporate that without compromising acoustic drums. I didn’t have to throw them away or replace them. It’s a balance.
It’s like the old extreme of musicians wanting to be technical or emotional—saying that only feel is important or only technique is important. Well, hell, they’re both important. Not only that, but they’re both good. I want to be technical, but I also want to be really instinctive and emotional. I want to play things that are exciting and I also want to play things that are difficult. I get a buzz and a satisfaction out of both of those.
Acoustic drums are my first love. My first relationship with things is to hit them with a stick. That still remains true. And everything that I’ve said about electronics in the past is still true. They don’t replace acoustic drums. They can never hope to do so any more than an electric piano will replace an acoustic piano. Any person with a halfway open mind realizes that fact. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that it has to be one or the other. That’s a mistake I fell into for a while, figuring that you had to be either going towards electronics or be a purist and stay with acoustics. Now I’ve found a way to have both, where I can move forward into electronics, but not have to sacrifice anything that I think is important.
That’s an essential truth that people tend to wander to extremes about. A lot of people have written to me saying, “It’s great that you don’t want to have electronics. I’m the same way.” And I’m still true to that just as I’m still true to the other thing about how headphones are a limitation. They do change your perception of what you play. It’s the same thing that you have to do in the studio. Anybody who’s been in the studio knows that you have to wear headphones. And that’s difficult. I have to imagine a lot in the studio because I don’t hear my cymbals right. I don’t hear my snare drum right. I don’t hear the interkit dynamics among snare, bass drum, tom-toms, and cymbals. Acoustically, all those things have an interrelation that’s really subtle. I can move from my snare to a certain tom-tom, and I’ll know that they have a certain relation to each other. I know what I can do. But, for instance, I know that I can’t go from my snare to my 8×12 tom and come back again. I know that acoustically it doesn’t work. But I know that I can go to my 9×13 tom and come back to my snare, and that works. It’s just a matter of the subtle interdynamics of the way I tune things and the characteristics of a particular drum of any given size. It has a certain voice about it and a certain characteristic to it. I’ve come to know all those things from a long familiarity—night after night of hearing what they can and will do.
The drum solo is my fundamental source of research and development as far as which voices will work together. None of that has changed. I still hold to all those principles, but at the same time, I’ve found a way to use headphones as a tool as I’ve been able to use electronic drums as a tool—without negating anything else.
SF: Gary Chester wanted me to ask you if you play flat-footed on your bass drum pedals or with heels up?
NP: I play with heels up all the time. I have a lot of equipment and I like it all under me. I don’t like things too far away. Consequently, my bass drums are very close to me. Even drummers who are smaller in stature than I am find it very uncomfortable to have things closed in that much. But I like to be able to have as much leverage as I need on any given drum. I like to be able to put my weight in the right place so that I can put whatever degree of force I want on either my left or right side, regardless. I want all my leverage there and it’s important to have everything in close. My bass drum pedal is practically right under my knee. I’ve noticed that drummers who sit further back with their legs more extended tend to play flat-footed.
I use my ankle a lot. It’s a not a question of playing from the thigh, although a lot of my pivoting comes from the hip. But anything fast has to come from my ankle. The same with my wrists. I play a lot with my arms, but when it comes to playing anything subtle or really quick, my wrists, my fingers or some smaller muscles definitely have to do that. Long muscles can only take care of so much. So basically I play with my toes, but I use my ankles. Whereas with a lot of drummers who play tiptoe, a lot of their pivoting comes from the hip. I use my ankle for pivoting as well.
My two bass drums are tuned the same. But my legs aren’t the same because of the long muscles which are the easiest to get in shape and, for me, the first to go out of shape. Towards the end of a tour, I start to lose the tone of my long leg muscles. My arms and my wrists just continue to get better and it becomes easier for me to play throughout a tour. The long muscles are the easiest to get back into shape when I start, but there’s something very touchy about them. For instance, when we used to open shows I had a lot of problems with my foot because we’d only be playing 40 minutes a night. There’d be no warm-up or soundcheck. The extent of my playing every day was only 40 minutes, which wasn’t enough for those muscles. I used to have a lot of problems with my feet and my leg muscles stiffening up and developing a kind of paralysis and a feeling that they were working against me. I’ve spoken to other drummers in the same circumstance who would ask me, “Are you familiar with this problem?” Or I’d ask them if they’d noticed it as a phenomenon. It’s definitely true that if you’re not playing enough every day, those muscles suffer the most. That’s the reason why my two bass drums tend to sound different. My right leg gets a lot more exercise than my left one does.
Whether or not someone else should play either on the toes or flat-footed depends on the individual. I can’t believe that some people have two feet of distance between them and their snare drum, and then another foot over to their bass drum. It’s so far away. I suppose you can get just as much power from your bass drum if it’s that distance from you. The same with your snare drum. You’d probably have to use your arms a lot more. But it probably does average out that you’re getting as much impact into it. It’s got to be a very individual thing. I feel better if things are in close to me. I have a lot of drums and cymbals and I want them where they’re us able. A good part of my drumkit is underneath me. I have pretty long arms so a lot of it can fall within the scope of being right under my center of gravity. It’s important for me to feel like I’m on top of the kit. Some people play behind their drums in a physical sense. Their kit is in front of them. I know lots of very good drummers who play that way. I don’t think there’s a qualitative difference there. It’s just probably a matter of what you’re comfortable with or used to.
SF: Your song “Losing It” seemed to be about Ernest Hemingway.
NP: Good. Yeah. Not a lot of people have caught that.
SF: I also wonder if that is a fear you have for yourself sometime in the future.
NP: Of course. But fortunately for me, as we covered before, I have another set of goals. When I start to feel as though I’m not improving any more as a drummer— not even getting worse, just not improving—I have another thing that I can go to work at and improve on. The two avenues that were explored in the song were, with the dancer, physical deterioration, and with the writer, mental deterioration. Actually, my original plan for that song was to carry it a little further into the area of musicians. I wanted to cover the idea of someone like Bob Marley, for instance, who loses it through a disease—an internal thing that you have no control over. Or in the case of Keith Moon, in a self-destructive sense, where someone loses it, but they don’t really lose it. They throw it away. It’s a bit too much to accomplish all in one song, but the concept I’d envisioned was all the different ways there are to lose something special. The essence was whether it was worth losing something great or whether it was worse never to have known it.
There’s a pathos I feel with people who have an unrealized dream of any kind. When you talk to an older person who says, “Well, I always wanted to be such and such, but I never really gave it a shot,” that’s sad. But to me it’s not nearly as sad as someone who was great at something and who has to watch it fade.
SF: Did Hemingway, towards the end of his life, feel like he couldn’t write anymore?
NP: It was really a sad case with him. He was trying to respond to an invitation from President Kennedy, I think, just before he died. He slaved for days just trying to write a little paragraph. The physical part of his deterioration was tragic too, because he was a very vital person. I can relate to that strongly, because I’ve also lived life in a very physical sense. I love physical expressions of things. And when you’ve depended on your brain as an instrument, and all of a sudden it doesn’t respond to you . . . I read a biography of John Steinbeck recently. It was the same thing. He realized that he had lost it. He knew that he couldn’t do it anymore and it was a source of tremendous sadness to him and frustration. And he never stopped trying, either. That’s even more sad, somehow—to see somebody trying to do something that they know they can’t do.
SF: Was the dancer in “Losing It” about anyone in particular?
NP: Not specifically. It drew a bit from that film with Shirley MacLaine called The Turning Point. It was about two ballet dancers. One of them had continued on and was getting to be a bit of a has-been. The other one had given it up to get married and raise a family. I was a bit inspired from that, but it was also about the physical side of doing things as an athlete. There’s a sadness to that.
Geddy’s a great baseball fan. He’s told me about batters, for instance, who have been beaned a couple of times, and all of a sudden, lose their nerve. You have to respond to that kind of tragedy compassionately. It’s a horrible thing. You spend all your life learning how to do a thing and then because of something beyond your control, all of a sudden you can’t do it anymore. It’s very sad. There’s an essential dynamic to life that you have a prime, and you have something leading up to that prime. Unfortunately, you also have to have something leading down from it.
SF: How do you feel about MTV and the effect it has on kids?
NP: It’s really neat that MTV has become another avenue of exposure for some bands. It’s been proven by a few different bands who wouldn’t have gotten exposure on the radio, but their videos were interesting. MTV has the same flaws that radio has in terms of being too programmed and too easy to try to find a formula for. Music is enough all by itself. Anyone who loves music knows that already. When you listen to something, you see pictures and it puts images in your mind, regardless of whether it’s abstract designs or good images that good music and lyrics make you see. They make you visualize a whole cinematic thing. We have written in the past from a cinematic point of view. We have a theme in the lyrics, or sometimes even before the lyrics, we have something that we want to create. We work at it cinematically in that we create a whole background and then we put the center focus of action, or the character, in the middle of it. We work at it just like a movie.
There’s no way that music means anything else. It doesn’t really need a lyric sheet and it certainly doesn’t need a video to express it. It’s two media mixing together, just like you could put poetry into a play, or you could put a novel into a song. But it doesn’t take away from either of those. Nothing’s going to take the place of a good book. Nothing’s going to take the place of a good record. Nothing’s going to take the place of a good movie. They are each separate unto themselves. I don’t have a strong relation to video or film as a medium. I don’t get any satisfaction out of making a video. I get a lot more satisfaction out of writing and recording, or playing a concert.
Another thing I find frustrating as a musician and a music fan is that I really like to see people playing their instruments. If you can’t get to see them live, but you see them in the old context of seeing a band on TV—seeing a band come on and play their song, or pretend to play their song at least—they have their instruments there and you can see how they look when they play. It gives you a whole new insight into the nature of that band. In a lot of modern videos, it becomes too obvious just to take a picture of the bands playing their songs.
When we’ve done interpretative videos where we take something beyond just us playing the song, we still maintain a balance of us playing the song. We’ll film ourselves playing the song and then we might add some other images. The ones we did for Signals were “Countdown” and “Subdivisions.” For “Countdown” the choices were obvious. We were there. We had friends at NASA and had access to these NASA films. Of course we’re going to use those. “Subdivisions” reflects each of our upbringings. All of us were brought up in the suburbs. It reflects each of us as being a misfit and not quite fitting into the fabric of a high school society. And we wanted to express that. But at the same time, both of those show us playing the song. We’ll cut away to something like in “Subdivisions” where we had a kid representing the misfit, and we showed his life, his parents and his school. That was the thrust of writing that song. That’s important. But it’s not so important that it should override our playing the song. It sometimes seems too facile to break things down to basics, but for me, you have to. You have to come down to the basic fact of, “What is it to be a musician?” It is to play your instrument. Therefore, when you’re playing it on a stage in front of people, that is the essential reality of being a musician.
Humphrey Bogart said that the only thing he owed the public was a good performance. You can add all kinds of caveats and possible exceptions to that—which we do respond to—but fundamentally, we are there to make the best records we can make and to play the best concerts we can play. We don’t always do that. But if we can do that, or at least even try to do that, that’s our responsibility.