Modern Drummer Magazine
by William F. Miller
It was on a Wednesday this past summer when I spent an enjoyable day interviewing Neil Peart at his lakeside retreat on the outskirts of Montreal. He had just finished recording the drum tracks for Presto, Rush's first studio album in over two years. After Neil picked me up at the airport that morning, we sped to Le Studio, where he showed me his drumkit and assortment of snare drums (in the process holding up Alex Lifeson, who was starting work on guitar sounds). From there we made our way to his secluded cabin, where the interview took place. The relaxed surroundings, overlooking a mountain lake with a breathtaking view of rolling hills covered with cedar trees, provided the backdrop for our conversation.
The following Saturday night I was in a smokey, sweat-filled club in Jersey, elbowing my way past well-oiled patrons to check out a local band. Between sets the percussionist in the band, a friend of mine named Chris, came over to say hello. During our brief chat, he asked if I had interviewed anyone of interest lately. I mentioned seeing Neil days before, and as soon as I finished rambling, he said, "Hold on, you have to meet someone!"
"Someone" turned out to be an excitable-looking fellow who immediately asked me, "You met Neil?" As soon as I replied, he reached for his wallet. Inside was a photograph that he always carries with him-not a photo of his girlfriend, his mother, or his favorite dog, but a photo of guess who: Neil Peart. He said that Neil was his favorite drummer and that keeping The Professor's photo in his wallet inspired him. Talk about a fan!
The reason I mention this story is to show the type of appeal Neil has with a lot of drummers. What is it about his playing that has captured the imagination of so many players? This was one of the questions I wanted this interview to answer. Most of all, though, I wanted to sit down with Neil and talk drums.
In your Modern Drummer cover story in '84, you said that you thought there would come a time when your playing would get as good as it could, and then not get any better. Have you reached that point?
Yes, I think I have. It's a funny kind of thing to say, because it won't read the way it's intended. It took me 20 years to reach a level of even some confidence. I'm not talking about being a virtuoso or being a master or anything like that. It took that long to reach a point where I actually thought I maybe could play, and I think the last five years have seen the cementing of that.
This has required a lot of inner evaluation and a certain amount of soul searching, too, because I had always lived on input and growth. At the end of a tour I always felt I had learned all these new things, and every record marked a significant broadening of my abilities and my choices of techniques. So now, I feel I've reached my potential. To make any technical improvements in my playing would take too much time, and at this point playing a faster paradiddle doesn't mean as much to me.
I spent 20 years on technique and on learning the finer points of keeping good time, developing tempo and shadings of rhythmic feel, and keeping my mind open to other ethnic music and other drummers, and all of that was just flooding into me. When I finally became confident in my playing, all of these things finally came together. Confidence really was the key for me. I was never a confident player at all-flamboyant, overplaying, yes, but never confident. I had to step back from that 20-year quest for knowledge and ask myself, "Do I really enjoy using all this stuff?" My consensus was that, yes, I do like being able to draw from all of these things I've worked on, but my mental approach to it has to change.
For me, the center of everything, and what I most enjoy doing, is what we-the band-have just been through, which is the process of writing new songs and arranging them. This includes working out drum patterns and trying to record the parts as well as possible and as quickly as possible. That has been the nexus of it, having to change my mental attitude toward what I do and having to re-evaluate in the true sense of values of what is important to me about it. It's not enough for me to just say, "I want to play my axe." I've spent 20-odd years doing that, and now I have other ambitions and interests in life.
So you are saying that you feel satisfied with what you are able to accomplished on a set of drums?
I think the word "satisfaction" sounds too smug. It's basically that I feel I have the raw materials to draw from to make the statement I want to make within a song. I can listen to a demo of a song and really have a wide open mind and not have an axe to grind, which is another important thing. Through all the years of my development there were always things I was looking to use, because I learned how to do them. When I heard a song, I would look for a place to put this lovely new idea that I had. Now I listen to a song openly and try to bring to it just what it requires, finding what best satisfies the song and satisfies me. I'm not looking to impress myself or others anymore; I'm just looking to challenge myself, and to me, that's the route to satisfaction.
Do you think a certain amount of your inflicting a lot of notes into Rush's music in the early days was brought on by a feeling of insecurity?
I wouldn't say it was insecurity. It was more a hunger, a desire-first to learn things and second to use them. That's what I was saying about there being a dark side to it, because I'm sure there were times when I used rhythmic ideas that maybe weren't best for the song, but I really had to use them. But they all add up to something, you know.
As a band we've grown through the same levels. We started with a total concentration on musicianship, which was for a time all we cared about. Our songs were subject to that. We explored playing in different time signatures and odd arrangements, and stringing a whole line of disparate ideas together, somehow. Sop we were lucky to spend that time developing together as a band, instead of just by ourselves. We were very excited about it, and there was nothing negative about it or a question of insecurity in a negative sense.
So you just wanted to see how far you could take it.
Yes. It becomes a series of experimentations, and like all experimentations, there are failures and there are successes, and looking back, I can judge them objectively. But all of them went somewhere. Even the failures taught us something as far as what not to do, in terms of the band anyway. It wasn't like we were sidemen trying to please someone else. I wasn't working in the studios doing jingles. I didn't have to conform. All of us were wide open to do what we wanted. We had, sand still have, a different set of parameters than a lot of other musicians have to work in.
Do you think yours is the best position to be in, as far as being a musician?
No question. I don't think many people would argue with that. It is pleasant sometimes to be a sideman, though. All of us in this band have done it to varying degrees. I have a friend who writes TV and film music, for instance. He's doing music for a soap at the moment, and it's set in Chicago. So he was writing a lot of slide guitar stuff with old blues patterns, and he called me to play on it. I had to play a lot of brushes, and all I did was what he told me. It was great. There was no weight on my shoulders, no responsibility, easy. There's a real joy to that when you're used to having the responsibility of everything. The there of us are very democratic in a musical sense as well as a responsibility sense, and we share the responsibilities amongst ourselves according to what we most prefer to do. However, stepping outside of that is a pleasure. But I have to think that the ideal is being in a band where you are allowed to do exactly what you want. It's hard to argue with that.
Getting back to what I was asking before, are you sure there aren't any techniques you'd like to get into on the drums?
I really don't think so. Like I said, after 20 years of playing, I've developed a lot of things that have proven valuable to me-even the rudiments. There's a track on the new album where I play a pattern that involves eight different ethnic drums, which I assigned to pads. I played the bass drum and snare drum parts with my feet, using my own sampled sounds triggered with foot triggers. The pattern I play with my hands couldn't be played without paradiddles, because I have to have my hands accenting in certain places. Without knowing how to do a paradiddle I couldn't have done that.
Double-stroke rolls pop up in my playing all the time, and since I spent days and weeks banging on a pillow, "Mama Dada Mama Dada," I can do a double-stroke roll. It is still a valuable thing to me, and time well spent. And that's true for any time that I've spent woodshedding a particular approach or listening to a style of music enough to understand it, like reggae or fusion. A lot of it I'll listen to as a drummer, just listening to it to understand. It's the same reason for reading Modern Drummer-to read what other drummers have to say about things, and either get inspired or angry. But all of that input is really important, and the time spent practicing is very valuable.
I do get really annoyed with musicians who are proud of the fact that they don't practice and never took a lesson. I just think that is such a cheat to say, "I just play simple; I don't need that." It's not really true. You can listen to some simple drummers and tell they know everything. It's implicit. they have a certain confidence and agility on the drumset. There was a drummer featured in MD a while back, Manu Katche, and most of his drumming is very simple, but it is so elegant. His work on the Robbie Robertson album or his work with Joni Mitchell or Peter Gabriel is a joy to listen to. The Robbie Robertson album is my favorite of Manu's playing, and I think there may be three fills on the songs he played on the album. His rhythms are such a hybrid between West African music and Western music.
There's an English pop band called China Crisis, and the drummer plays very simple patterns with very few fills, but again, what he plays is so elegant, and right for the music, and you can tell he has confidence. When he plays difficult patterns he plays them with such authority that they just flow by you smoothly. Many drummers try to pull off a more difficult pattern or fill, and it comes off slightly less than smooth. I've been guilty of that myself certainly! The really good drummers make what they're playing sound effortless-not labored. When you have drummers who have spent a lot of time learning, ad a lot of time practicing and playing different styles of music, when they do set themselves to play simply, they have a certain authority and a uniqueness to what they are doing that sets them apart. They're not just playing the only beat they know. And that's what a lot of so-called simple drummers are guilty of. They're playing simply because that's all they know. That's sad in one sense because it's so limiting. They are victims to the "less is more" approach because they don't understand exactly what it means. You have to know what you want to play and what you want to leave out-not just play the only beat you know. A lot of times, less is less.
There are songs on the new album where originally I heard the demo that Alex and Geddy had made with a drum machine. Parts of it might have been recorded to a purely off-the-cuff, moronic drum beat. When I came to work out my own parts for the song, I tried everything. My basic way to work on a song is to try everything I know and then eliminate all of the stuff that doesn't work until I pare it down to something that satisfies me. But there were some parts of some songs that demanded to be simple. And it's a reality that you just have to face. If it works best that way, it's incumbent upon you not to mess it up. [laughs]
I have to find other ways to musically satisfy myself, and I've experimented a lot, particularly in the '80s, trying to find ways to make things interesting to me. Playing a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern has been a real challenge for me because I like it. I've always liked dance music, but I could not sit there for five minutes and play only that' I would shoot myself. So I have to find ways to somehow make it work for me, because I want to do it but in a way that's going to be technically and mentally challenging. So I'll take a song that demands that simple part and say, "Okay, if I have to play a simple pattern, I'll try to find ways to make variations in that pattern so that it's really long, like a 16- or 24-bar pattern of repeating things so that I have to remember the simple pattern stretched over a long period of time.
Then you get into the question of delivering that pattern perfectly, too. Again, anyone who has spent time learning and practicing drums knows what you can do with a simple 2 and 4 beat, and how many different ways you can lean that, even with metronomic time. You can push the beat, land dead on the beat, or pull it back as far as you can. Working with a click track in the studio, as I have done for the last several years, I learned to play games with that, too. I don't use a conventional click, by the way. I use a quarter-note bass drum sound. So if I'm playing along with it and I can't hear it, I know I'm in time. That's great because then I don't have to listen to the stupid thing. It's almost become a subliminal relationship with this bass drum pounding away, and I just sit in with it. As you get more confident with a click, you start fooling around with how much latitude you can get away with. It's like, "Just how far back can I pull this thing?" So being able to experiment within the framework of the click is something I like to do.
A good drummer that I like who plays simply is Phil Gould, who used to be with Level 42. He plays very simple, R&B-influenced drumming, but when he pulls a fill out it'll be a beautiful fill. And his feel is great. If you try to tap along with their downbeat-on-the-3 type of songs, you'll just about break your hand trying to come down behind the beat as much as he does. He has that feel down so well. It's very satisfying for me to listen to from a drummer's point of view or from a music fan's point of view. It feels great, has tremendous authority, and has the spice of a great little fill leaping out of it.
The three drummers I mentioned I can count among my favorite drummers, although they don't play the kind of drumming that I like playing. They're playing the kind of stuff that I like to listen to. Music that I like to listen to is not always what I would like to be playing. For instance, I could never be a reggae drummer; I would go nuts. But I love to listen to it; it's so infectious and I love the rhythm. But I couldn't discipline myself enough to shut off my ideas.
Would you say that overall you prefer to listen to a more simple drummer than a busier player?
For me it's more the style of music rather than the style of drummer. I do enjoy organized music, and it's one of the things that keeps me from getting emotional about jazz. I can listen to it, be inspired by it live, and appreciate it, certainly. But when it comes to music for pleasure, I like music that is constructed and organized, and that time has been spent on the craft of it.
Technique, though, is important to me. I'm really impressed by it when I hear it done well. But there is just so little of it around on display, and what there is tends to be devoted to jazz. I guess that's just an unfortunate void that is in modern music.
You mentioned earlier that you get the most enjoyment out of arranging new songs, and coming up with new drum patterns for songs. How do you go about coming up with your drum parts?
I usually work out my parts by myself now. Geddy and Alex will put down a rough demo tape of the song in a basic arrangement form with a drum machine. Then I go up to the demo studio alone and go over it and try what works and what doesn't. Gradually I'll refine the drum part down to something that will work.
How much time does that process take?
It depends on the song really. It's probably about a day for each song. That's the best way for me to do it-just immerse myself in one song. But that's not to say I work out every single note that I'm going to be playing. I'll decide where I may want a special fill, or where a specific time pattern is to be played, but I leave plenty of freedom in the parts for some creativity in the studio. I said before that I like organized music, but I also like spontaneity in its appropriate place. The studio is the perfect place for that because you are allowed to keep being spontaneous until you're spontaneously good!
You mentioned that you don't feel you can improve much beyond where you are now. How important is practicing to you now?
I read a great quote recently by a young classical violinist. She was asked if she ever practiced, and her response was, "I never practice, I only play." And that was not to say that she didn't pick up her instrument and play, but she never picked it up to practice without playing music. That's basically the way it is for me. If I sit down at my drums informally, I just sit down and play. I don't worry about practicing a pattern or something. I'm a bit worried about the smugness of having arrived at a certain point. Not by a long shot have I learned everything there is to know, but I've learned enough to satisfy me.
I have a little set of drums set up in my basement at home, and I like to sit down and play with brushes-just playing around. I have a marimba that I get on and play. During a break in the preparations for the new album, I recorded some basic tracks that I can play marimba along to. I just picked out some chords and keys that I like and recorded them. I have them on cassette so I can play along any a time I want to. I enjoy that because it allows me the chance to play the instrument instead of playing scales or technical things alone.
Do you have to practice a certain amount of time just to maintain your abilities? Does it go away?
Ironically, no. I traveled a great deal last year, and there was a period of several months where I was continents away from any drums to play. When I started to work on getting back in shape playing-wise for the new album, I was wondering just how far back I was going to have to go to get it back. But I found that after so many years of playing, and especially so many years of touring, the muscle memory is intense. All I really had to do was get some callouses back on my hands. I hadn't forgotten how to do a thing; I hadn't lost any fluidity or agility. The smaller fast-twitch muscles in the wrists and fingers had to be developed a little bit, but it was nowhere near as difficult as I thought it was going to be.
It surprised me. I was never that confident to think that I could lay off and still be able to play. I always thought that you had to maintain this thing. Before tours, I would always start weeks in advance preparing by myself, putting on headphones and playing along with our records. I think that was more a matter of getting into shape for touring physically, and not mentally. After hundreds and hundreds of shows of very intensive drumming, you can't avoid playing a lot. You're putting out full strength all the time. I also feel a tremendous amount of responsibility about playing live. You're up there to deliver, and there are no excuses. It doesn't matter how you're feeling or how things are going technologically or whatever. That attitude is sort of inbred in me in a puritanical way, that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. My father used to hammer that into me, but it's become kind of a credo of my own.
When you've been on a long tour, do you notice that you're thinking less about every note that you're playing and more about just the spices, as you say?
Yes, I'd say that's definitely true. Ideally, you shouldn't have to think about what you're doing, but you should always be thinking about what you're going to do. You always have to be well ahead of yourself. And by being able to think ahead, your drumming has so much more confidence and authority because you know what's coming. Mistakes are made in moments of indecision. The more playing you do, like during a tour, for example, the better that "automatic pilot" becomes. You're not turning your mind off. On the contrary, you're turning it on in a much broader sense.
I'd like to talk specifically about the new album for a moment. I recently heard that Rush is now on a new record label. How did that come about?
Well, we had been with Phonogram since day on, so that's 14 years. We had signed several contracts over the years with them, and we'd had good relations with them. The band had talked about making a change in the past but never did it, and then when your last contract with Phonogram expired, we decided not to renew. We started to feel a little taken for granted. we are not a record company's dream. We go along from album to album and sell a respectable amount, but we never have blockbuster hits and we don't go quadruple platinum. We just go along at our own speed, and it works out great.
We've never had any really strong radioplay support, so touring has always been our only mode of exposure. As far as we could see, we were out there selling our own records, which is fine , but we thought that maybe another record company could help us out a bit more, and not make it always incumbent upon us to sell our goods. We felt that the whole machinery rested on us-that if we stopped doing interviews, if we stopped touring for any reason, nobody else would be doing anything.
That had a good side to it as well. In the early days we were left alone, too. We were allowed to take four albums before we even broke even. Most bands at that time, or especially this time, would not get that kind of latitude. We were kind of overlooked. It was a small company at the time and they were a little bit disorganized. Rush has out-lived, it would seem, countless hierarchies of management at the label. We just went along through all of that. And we also weathered through the "not new band" syndrome, where the label would get excited about some new band that would last a year or two and then be gone, but we're still here. That was the problem: We were just there.
Do you have any added pressure on you with this album since this is a situation with a new label?
No, to the contrary, I think it's up to them to prove it. We've had a lot of albums that have done pretty well. Atlantic, our new label, is convinced that they can do better for us. We're not saying, "Sign us because we'll sell more records with you." They're saying, "Sign with us because we'll sell more records." It's a pretty simple thing. It doesn't put any pressure on us at all, any more than we already place on ourselves, which is serious enough. When you go in with the blank slate and begin the whole process of coming up with a record, it's a fearsome thing. In fact, it's something I avoid. If we have decided to go to work on some new material, I always try to get away and work on lyrics to have something ready. For the most part, when we begin working on a new project we all have ideas to get things rolling. sometimes we do start from scratch though. I think that can be a very positive approach. We have gone into a record situation and been one song short for an album, due to whatever reason, and sometimes good things come from that. We have even gone so far as to plan for it, where we will write all the material except for one song, and then have to come up with something on the spot. On our album, HOLD YOUR FIRE, we had written the entire album, and at the last minute we decided that we wanted a different kind of song. So on our very last day of pre-production, we wrote what became the opening song on the album, "Force Ten." So it was done on a self-imposed kind of pressure.
How do you feel that the song turned out?
Oh great! It's one of my enduring favorites from that album. Another song that we did this same way was "Vital Signs" from MOVING PICTURES. That song was last minute in the studio! We had finished everything else for the record, so we felt free to try something. It could be anything we wanted it to be, so that was a refreshing feeling. So it can be a very beneficial thing.
Now that the band seems to be starting fresh, with a new label and all, how would you describe the music on this new album?
For one thing, I think we've stretched the parameters a little further. As records become less and less a part of the modern media, that's given us a certain freedom time-wise. We're no longer regimented to 20 minutes a side for an album. Records are less than 10% of what people purchase now. We looked at the cassette and the CD as the definitive versions, so we thought in terms of roughly an hour of music. We gave ourselves the option for more songs, and more room to poke into the corners stylistically. That extra latitude makes quite a bit a difference in how we would normally do things.
We ended up with 11 songs, and they're all quite different. With this album, we started out with a couple of basic underlying ideas to work from. We discussed the idea of letting the music grow from our basic unit, which is guitar, bass, and drums. On past albums we tended to write a lot with keyboards and then apply the other instruments afterwards. We thought it would be more interesting to be a bit more linear and do the writing around the guitar framework, and thinking of it as an ensemble as guitar, bass, and drums. Not to be reactionary-we don't omit keyboards as a point of principle. To the contrary, we will probably use keyboards as much as ever, but the focus will be different.
Were there any moments on the new album when you found yourself being challenged by a drum part?
I mentioned before the dichotomy of balancing simple and complex, which is something that is always difficult. I find simple parts challenging for me. The most challenging aspect of new music is coming up with the right part or the right pattern. Some things just seem to fall together, where I hear the piece and immediately have an idea, and luckily it works. However, that's the exception.
There's a song on the album called "Show Hotel," which begins with a syncopated guitar riff that appears two or three times throughout the song. That was about the hardest thing for me to find the right pattern for. I wanted to maintain a groove and yet follow the bizarre syncopations that the guitar riff was leading into. It was demanding technically, but at the same time, because of that, we were determined that it should have a rhythmic groove under it. It's not enough for us to produce a part that's technically demanding; it has to have an overwhelming significance musically. So it had to groove into the rest of the song and it had to have a pulse to it that was apart from what we were playing.
There's another song on the album, called "Scars." On this song I was playing eight different pads with my hands in a pattern, while I played snare and bass drum parts with my feet. I was using paradiddles with my hands to get the accents in the right place and on the right pads. Then I had to organize the different sounds on the pads correctly so they would fall in the order I wanted them to. Then I had to arrange all of that into a series of rhythmic patterns, not just one. It was more than a day's work before I even played a note.
That was a challenge of a different sort, but it came about in an interesting way. When Geddy and Alex did the demo for the song, they put all kinds of percussion on the track, including congas, timbales, and bongos. We talked about bringing in a percussionist to play in addition to the drum pattern I might play. I wanted to bring in Alex Acuna, someone who is tremendously facile in that area, who could make the track exciting as well as interesting. I figured he could assign me the simple parts and we could do it together. But then they thought, "What if Neil did it all himself using pads?" So it happened as I described, with me playing the percussion parts with my hands and holding down the snare and bass parts with my feet. It was very satisfying to me to come up with a part that worked by myself.
Is that something you'll be able to pull off live?
Oh absolutely! That's the thing, there isn't an overdub on it. When we first played the tape for our producer, he thought I overdubbed the whole thing. Most listeners will probably think that when they hear the song. Sampling has been a Godsend to me, to be able to include sounds in my playing without having to overdub anything. I have little triggers placed around my kit so I can always get to one if I have a special sound that I want to use on a given song. Sampling brings the world of percussion to a place the size of a coin. Around an acoustic drumset there are plenty of places to stick a little trigger, and of course there's always room for a footswitch. You can always slip a foot off the hi-hat and send off another sound. I feel it really adds a lot to the character of what I'm doing.
On the last few albums I know you experimented a great deal with sampling and coming up with your own unique sounds to trigger. Did you continue with this on the new album?
Yes, I did a little bit. I really did resist getting into electronics for a long time-long after just about everyone else took it up. It got to the point where I couldn't resist it. But even then I didn't want to replace my acoustic set. That's when I came up with the idea of the back-to-front satellite kit. Anybody who saw my kit in the late '70s knows I tried to put everything up there, including all types of percussion instruments. It just got to the point where I could not get any more around me. I wanted more keyboard-percussion items on my kit because at the time I was really pushing myself to play more parts on mallet instruments. I never expected to become a virtuoso on keyboard percussion, but I thought I could contribute to the band sonically.
All of those instruments are big. You know, when you start wanting to have a marimba, glockenspiel, timpani, and chimes, it's just an impossibility to get it around you. So when sampling came along, that's when electronics just won me over completely. When the KAT MIDI mallet controller came along, that was what I had been hoping for. All of the keyboard percussion stuff that I had been trying to fit in physically and also get reproduced in a live setting, I was finally able to do. I used to have my glockenspiel where the KAT is now in my kit. We would mike those bells, and that mic' would pick up only part of the instrument, but it would pick up half the drumkit and most of the bass sound! So using the KAT completely avoids those types of problems.
I sample all my own sounds. If I happen to need a timbale sample because I want a timbale on my right-hand side-my acoustic timbale is on my left-I sample my own timbale. On the song I mentioned earlier, "Scars," I sampled my own snare drum and played it with my foot. On the last studio album we have a song called "Mission," which had a syncopated marimba, bass guitar, and snare drum solo. When it was originally recorded I recorded the snare drum and overdubbed the marimba to it. Live, I assigned both the snare drum sound and the marimba sound to the same pad, so I can have both sounds! On the song "Time Stand Still" I used temple block sounds. Through the wonder of electronics I was able to manipulate the pitches of the temple blocks, so I got the sound I heard in my head for that part. I have an antique Chinese drum at home that's too fragile to do anything with, but by sampling, I was able to use it on the record.
Were there any new drum products that you used on the new album, other than electronics?
Snare drums have been my main area of research lately. I tend to go through periods of examination of the drums that I use, the heads that I use, and so on. I'm constantly re-evaluation what I use, and I try not to take any of it for granted. As I went through the rehearsal process, I had time to experiment. I was going over the songs on my own, not wasting anyone else's time, so I recorded what I was doing and really listened to the snare drum. I tried each of the tracks with different ones.
I really got to know my little snare family. I had a rough idea what each of the drums could do, but I never had the time to really experiment and find out what I like about each of them. I have my old faithful Slingerland snare that has been my number-one snare for years. I've always kept my ears open over the years for different drums, but that one always sounded best. But this time I really wanted to experiment. I tried a few piccolo snares, some of the custom-made snares, just trying whatever I could get my hands on. I had an old Camco snare drum that was given to me in Japan by Tama, and suddenly it sounded great to me. I liked it for years, but all of a sudden it started sounding real good to me. I ended up using it on four songs on the album. It's a very bright-sounding drum.
Solid Percussion has a drum that I really like. It's a piccolo drum that has a solid note in a usable range. Most piccolos have tremendous definition and a great high-end crack, that they don't have much in the way of a bottom end. The Solid drum that I have is made of cocobolo wood that gives it a resonance that carries into lower frequencies. That must be the fundamental difference, because I tried another piccolo of theirs made of ply maple, and it sounded like a good-sounding piccolo, but not as versatile as the solid-shell cocobolo. It's a joyous drum to play. I used that drum for most of the record.
When you showed me your kit and all of your snare drums in the studio, I noticed that you didn't have any snare drum deeper than a 5" shell. You're not interested in deep-shelled snared drums?
Well, I've tried them, but I just don't like the sound. The distance between the heads gives the drum an odd response, at least to me. They feel funny to me. I know they have their uses, but they don't fall into what I'm doing.
I'm the same way with tom-toms. I practically had to special order a set that didn't have deep-shelled toms. Everyone thinks that depth equals volume or resonance, or something. It's something that I've experimented with, and have found no basis in fact. I use the standard tom sizes and get a sound that I'm most happy with.
Which snare drum are you going to take out with you on the road?
Now that's a tough one! Number one [the Slingerland] has been number one for a long time. It really does it all live, but at this point I'm not sure. I would think that the cocobolo drum is a strong contender because it really does everything well.
Talking about drums, besides your snare drum sound, you've always had an excellent bass drum sound. You're probably going to tell me that you changed your bass drum setup on every album and tour, but how do you have them tuned and muffled?
Actually you're right, I haven't changed what I do with them over the last few years. In the studio, I generally take off the front heads and use quite heavy damping. I'll use those quilted packing blankets placed right against the head.
It's a funny thing with damping. I wonder if I'll get to the point where I'll be able to get the sound I want without any damping. Years ago I muffled everything on the kit-the toms and the snare. Then, as I became better at tuning drums, I stopped using muffling completely on toms and snare drums in the studio. But with the bass drums, I don't know; it's one hell of a big barrel with too much out-of-control transient stuff going on.
For live work, I use both heads on the drum. The front head has a hole just large enough to get a mic' inside. For muffling I use a product I saw advertised in your very pages. It's a crescent-shaped muffling device that just sits inside the drum and rests against both heads.
Does that muffle the drums a lot?
No. It's a very light foam that lets a lot of the air pass through it, so the drum isn't completely dead. The thing I've always liked about double-headed bass drums is that they have a liveliness that feels great, and they're much more dynamic. It's just like the difference between a double-headed tom and an open tom. The open tom has one sound, whereas the double-headed drum has an infinite variety of sounds.
As for heads on the bass drums I like the clear dots for their durability. And I just use your typical felt beater. It's mundane, I know. [laughs]
Speaking of toms, for the longest time you had both double- and single-headed drums in your setup, and you mentioned in previous interviews that you like that setup. However, now you're only using the double-headed drums.
That's right. During the last album I recorded a song with the open toms and then re-recorded it with double-headed toms, and the effects were surprising for me. The only open toms I had on my kit were the four highest drums, the 6", 8", 10", and 12". With two heads, the drums just came alive.
I ended up changing my setup a little bit because I was duplicating a drum size. My toms used to range from left to right, 6", 8", 10", 12", all open toms, and then 12", 13", 15", and 18" double-headed toms. When I completely switched over to double-headed toms, I got rid of one of the 12" toms.
With the upcoming tour are you planning on using the revolving riser with the two drumkits?
Yes, because it gives me the flexibility to use both electronics and acoustics. I don't have to compromise one for the other.
How did you come up with the arrangement of the instruments on the electronic kit? I mean, the ride cymbal is practically on top of the snare drum!
Yes, that's a bit different. It just becomes inevitabilities. It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, "Eliminate the impossible, and whatever's left must be the truth." It kind of comes down to that with putting together a drumset.
A lot of times people think you start with all this equipment and figure out a place to put it. For drummers, I think as your kit changes grows, it does so by one little unit at a time. When my kit started growing from a small drumkit into a big one, it was literally one cowbell, one cymbal, one whatever, found its spot. Other things would then have to work around that. You find little ideas that will help you economize on space and let you squeeze something in. Putting one cymbal on top of another is a time-honored one, and getting things in close enough to you so that you can play them with conviction. Things have to be in reach and controllable.
When it came to adding the back kit, once I had thought of getting an acoustic bass drum and snare drum, cymbals, and then placing the electronic pads around that, it all sort of fell into place. As far as having a ride cymbal above a snare drum, I think it's great. It makes me do different things. And because of where I have that cymbal positioned, as well as the ride cymbal from my acoustic kit, I have two ride cymbals that I can reach. I have been playing patterns lately involving 16th notes between two ride cymbals that I could never do on a normal kit.
Every time I'm at a Rush concert I see drummers in the audience playing along with you, air-drumming. Do you try to exactly reproduce your recorded parts live?
It depends if it's hard enough. I mentioned before about difficulty being an underrated quality, because it's the difficulty of a song that keeps it fresh. If we've gone to the trouble of making a song a challenge to us, then we really don't get tired of playing it.
Our song "Tom Sawyer" is a perfect example of a song that is a complete challenge for me to play years after the record came out, because it's difficult physically and mentally. So to me, there's no sense messing with it. I'm just trying to make it as accurate and as musical as possible. But there are other songs that do get tired or we become disenchanted with, so we certainly change them. If some songs just are past the point of interest for us, we retire them. As far as people air drumming along at shows, I take that as a compliment that they like the fills. I spend a lot of time trying to be able to come up with the right fills, so if they're enjoyed by the audience that way, terrific.
Whenever I've seen you perform, you have an expression on your fact of sheer concentration.
I'd call it desperate concentration. [laughs]
But your expression is not too extreme when you compare it to other rock drummers. And yet, you do things like stick tosses and twirls. So I was wondering how you feel about drumming and showmanship.
I think it's great, as long as its both; the drumming has to be as important as the showmanship. When drumming and showmanship are talked about they tend to be like technique and feel, as if they were mutually exclusive of each other. Obviously they need not be.
Gene Krupa was probably my first seed of wanting to be a drummer. There's no question that he was very flamboyant. To me he was the first rock drummer. Keith Moon was another early drummer that I admired a lot, and he was probably the most flamboyant drummer there has been. So I think in the hands of someone who can already play, showmanship is great.
For me, to toss a stick up in the air is a really dangerous thing. Who knows where it's going to come down? So it adds a certain amount of risk to the performance, and a certain amount of excitement. And I like to toss them high, so it's a challenge. It's not something you can take for granted; it's a little moment of tension for me.
That's an interesting point you mentioned about facial expression, though. It seems that when I'm performing there's so much chaos going on inside of me, and yet when I see a film or a still photograph of myself, it doesn't seem to reflect the reality as I know it. I feel like I'm literally a storm. My mind and my body are just frantic, completely over the top.
With all of the years of loud playing that you have done, have you noticed any problems with your hearing?
No, I haven't. I think it's an ill-understood thing, the effects of loud sounds on the ears. I've read a lot about it, and most of the information is conflicting. The band has a serious ear check every year before we begin recording an album, because in the studio you're talking about increments of equalization that are so tiny that we think it's very important, aside from the obvious reasons. It may be the case that I'll go deaf when I'm 60-as long as I don't go blind.
By the way, I really object to ear protection. When I see bands that play ridiculously loud and wear ear plugs, I think it's a stupid thing. If you're not going to accept it, why should you bludgeon your audience with it? I love loud music and always have, and I think there's a certain forcefulness about it that's irreplaceable and part of the energy of rock that I like. However, I think you're losing touch with your instrument with ear plugs, and if you need them to get through a performance, then maybe the music is too loud.
Do you find that a long tour affects you emotionally?
Touring alone does, just because you are isolated away from everything. We were lucky to have come up through the ranks slowly. We saw a lot of other bands headlining, and saw how they handled fame with all its temptations. I certainly got to see how dangerous it is for an unstable person to deal with the whole situation. I've seen many of them just crumble underneath it. So strong character is pretty much an irreplaceable quality to have in this business. That is something that doesn't always go with a very creative personality.
Does the band have a lot of input into all of the elaborate production "events" that happen in a Rush performance?
As I mentioned earlier, each of us in the band has different areas that interest us, so we specialize in them. Geddy, for instance, is very interested in visual arts, and he's a big film buff. He was very influential with our live concert video, A Show Of Hands, because it was a way for him to apply an interest. I've always had a secondary interest in both words and visual images, so art direction falls into my job description, as well as being the stenographer for the band, collecting up all of the credits and lyrics for album covers, submitting them, and making sure they're all organized. It's a way for us to help each other and the band so that all of us don't have to do everything.
You just mentioned your concert video, A Show Of Hands. While watching it, I noticed that you have to play along with a lot of sequenced parts. Do you have any suggestions on working with a sequencer in a live setting?
It's very similar to working with a click in the studio. It's really just a matter of practice. It's a barrier that drummers need to get over. Once you get over it, working with sequencers really becomes a second-nature type of thing. One difficult thing about sequencers live is being able to hear them. I still use headphones a lot for that reason.
I thought I noticed a lot sequenced parts where you didn't seem to be wearing headphones.
Oh yeah, a lot of them. I just have them through my monitors. In fact a lot of them I trigger myself. The challenge to it really is that many of our sequenced parts aren't entier songs in length. Of course the sequence is the exact tempo that the record was made to, and playing live, that is not always a realistic proposition. But in this case, I have to set myself up through the whole song so that maybe in the second chorus, when the sequence comes in, I'm going to lock in with it and it's not going to sound as if suddenly the whole song slowed down or got faster. That takes a lot of practice, and it is just a matter of time.
Speaking of sequencers, each of us trigger these things live on stage. The line we draw is that all of those things have to be triggered manually. It's not like using tapes. Sequencers, especially in the context that we use them, are coming in all over the place in our performances. They have to be triggered obviously to the millisecond, or they'll be off from what we are playing. The dangers that can happen musically are nerve-racking. We don't feel as if we're cheating because of the way it's all put together by us, as opposed to if we were up there playing along to tapes. We'd never be comfortable with that.
Over the years you've been known for your long, and well-executed, drum solos. The solo on A Show Of Hands seems to have been edited.
It was truncated quite a bit. It had to be in order to fit within a certain amount of time. When we were coming down to deciding what to put on the tape, whether it be my drum solo or another song, I told them that I would prefer another song. And then I went on a bike trip of the Rockies. When I came back, I got a call from the office asking me if I'd like to include the drum solo after all. We only had a certain amount of time on the CD to fit it in with all of the songs we wanted to include, so I went in and killed a lot of the things in the solo that had appeared on earlier recorded solos of mine, so that the listener would have something fresh to hear. For the video, I had even less time for the solo. But I was still very happy with what was presented there, and since I got to decide where to edit it, it was no imposition.
One of the things in your solo that I like were the horn kicks at the end. Were you triggering those yourself?
Yes I was. There was an interesting story behind that section of the solo. I took the idea from a Count Basie CD that I have. I sampled the horn hits off the CD and triggered them live, but I didn't feel right about using someone else's sounds on our record. I have strict morality about sampling, and it's one reason why I use mostly my samples. I don't like think that they have been robbed off of someone else's records.
So I went into the studio where they have a Synclavier, which is a super-deluxe synthesizer. We analyzed the chording of the Basie samples and reproduced them synthetically. So I got all of the intervals I wanted, and it ended up sounding beautiful. I could then wipe the guilt off my brow because I had gone to the trouble and expense of creating those samples.
During that section, how did you go about triggering those horn hits?
With Simmons pads. I assigned each one to a different pad, and to a foot switch. I struck the pad and crash cymbal at the same time so the hits came off exactly together. I worked it out so that things were in the right place so that I could do that kind of drum construction I wanted and be in the right place for the brass accents.
Something I've noticed in your playing over the years is the way you organize your drum fills within a song. Many times you arrange them from more simple in the beginning of a song to much more complex by the end. Is this something you make a conscious decision about, or has this just happened naturally?
It's a conscious decision. I do it because I hate doing the same fill twice in the same song. As I expressed before, I do like simple fills. But if I do one once in a song, then I feel compelled to do something different the next time. Usually there's a relationship between the fills I play within a given song. They're either variations on each other, or they're progressions toward a certain thing. Let's say the first fill I play in a song will intimate a triplet feel. the next fill will state it a bit more clearly, and on the last fill, it will be no holds barred. Rideouts in songs that have fades are always the time when Geddy and I really stretch a bit. At that point the main statement about the song has been made, and we've been good boys throughout, and then the rideout comes and we feel we can let loose.
A lot of drummers think that playing busy is as simple as playing everything you know all the time. But there really is a broader significance of those things and the application of things. I know that in a lot of people's minds I probably overplay, but in my own aesthetic I don't. And I don't intrude upon other people. Just as I am sure other people have firm rationale for doing what they do, I have very well-thought out parameters for approaching things the way I do.
When I was younger, Keith Moon was my idol, and because of this I always wanted to be in a band that played Who songs. But when I finally got in a band that was playing Who songs, it was all so crazy that it didn't suit my character. My personality demanded structure and organization, and within the context of trying to play like Keith Moon in Who songs, it wasn't me. That's an important dividing point for any drummer-when you find out that the way your hero plays is not the way you should play. That was a significant turning point for me, when I found out that the way I thought I wanted to play really wasn't the way I wanted to play.
Throughout this interview you have mentioned drummers who have inspired you. but there are a lot of drummers whom you have inspired. In fact, you're probably the most popular drummer...
...in this room! [laughter]
Seriously, you may be the most popular drummer to emerge in the last 20 years. What do you think it is about your playing that has interested so many drummers?
I guess it's that I play a lot within the context of the band. We've had a lot of good fortune being in a band that plays the kind of music we want to play, and stretches out all over the place. I suppose my appeal would be to primarily younger drummers, who would be more impressed by a lot of playing. It's also that the band I'm in has a certain amount of success, and has given me a great deal of visibility.
That's really a tough question. There are so many things involved. As a band we went to the trouble of learning all those technical things that take a long time to learn. And, just as I can't help admiring any drummer I hear who learned how to play all of the rudiments, learned how to apply them, learned how to keep good time-those things carry a lot of weight with me and will win the respect of most any drummer.
When I watch A Show Of Hands, I'm struck by the amount of fun that you and the rest of the band seem to be having.
Again, on another night it would show so much more because, on that night, we were concentrating so much on trying to be good. But I'm glad it shows in that context.
You've been in Rush now a long time.
It's been 15 years this year.
Do you really still enjoy it?
Oh yeah. I mean there are nights, and there are NIGHTS; any musician knows that. But after all of these years there are still really magical, wonderful performances that we have where there's no other place I'd rather be.
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