If ever there was a player to make the stupid drummer joke redundant, it would be Neil Peart. Not 15 minutes into our conversation, he’s already made a passing reference to evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, quoted the eminent poet Robert Frost, talked about the influence of British science writer Richard Dawkins, and explained how he’s worked the structure of the Malaysian pantun into his work. “Hey, did you hear about the drummer who finished high school?” Yes we did, and his name is Neil Peart.
Author, lyricist, motorcyclist and … oh yes, drummer, Peart, along with his Rush bandmates of the last 33 years, is set to release album number 18, Snakes & Arrows, and take the show on the road one more time. Thirty-five million albums since the band formed in the small community of Willowdale, outside of Toronto, it’s back with a CD as vigorous and energetic as the records of its youth.
With the longest track tapping out at just over six-and-a-half minutes, and with two songs barely breaking two minutes, Snakes is Rush concise, lean, fighting, and fired-up. Many of the tracks follow traditional musical constructions with catchy choruses and almost-traceable verse/bridge/chorus formats, but there’s still plenty of wild syncopation and implausible time signatures to placate the Rush faithful.
With the bandmembers now well into their fifties — Peart turned 54 last September — Snakes presents a surprisingly youthful sounding Rush, a band still pushing itself to the limits of its technical ability. No small achievement. It’s up there with being one of the few rare bands that has managed to maintain a stable lineup since its first record.
“You know, there really isn’t a secret to that,” says the soft-spoken Peart. “It’s like any long-term relationship; there are so many accommodations that you make deliberately because the relationship is more important than some petty selfish interest on the day. Plus I like to use the word ’consensus’ — democracy doesn’t work if it’s two voting against one.”
Peart explains how he’d read that The Police flirted unsuccessfully with democracy, with the trio working itself into a corner, always leaving one member unhappy. “In our case we look for a consensus and will adjust arrangements, song parts, lyrics, cover art, running order ... the things that can be contentious. But we’ll discuss them and discover where people’s strongest feelings lie and try to find consensus within that polarity.”
Perhaps the key to Rush’s extraordinary longevity is that this isn’t a process the band has grown into; it has been a way of life from the beginning. “I can remember in the early years, thinking about something I was upset or angry about and thinking, ’is this worth starting that kind of argument that can break up the band?’ It takes a few straws and a few people drawing a line in the sand that they won’t cross, and that’s it. You can’t go anywhere after an ultimatum. And again that’s the same as any relationship: the ultimate thing to be avoided is the ultimatum. We don’t even get close to that kind of stuff, honestly.”
Collaboration and consensus has been the cornerstone of Rush’s success, and Peart’s personal achievements. As the author of four books, he relies heavily on his editors and enjoys the interplay he has with them and how they force him to become a better writer. As a teacher, he works closely with his partners to produce the best instructional DVDs that he can. Similarly, the band — despite its clear ability to make records on its own — choose to work with a producer.
“We like to have a strong, respected person there with other ideas and other opinions and suggestions that we wouldn’t necessarily think of,” he explains. “Someone we respect that will help us establish that consensus. That’s a really important part of the dynamic and although we’ve discussed producing ourselves after all these years, that’s not really the answer for us.”
For Snakes & Arrows, that person is 37-year-old Nick Raskulinecz, Dave Grohl’s partner at his Northridge, California studio complex. A producer and engineer best known for his work with Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver, System Of A Down, and Queens Of The Stone Age, Raskulinecz is also an ecstatic Rush fan.
“Generally we put out the feelers and collect show reels — a sampler of somebody’s work — and there was something about the architecture of Nick’s work that really stood out, especially in the way instruments were placed in the mix. Then when we met him we totally responded, and he listened to the songs we’d demoed like a fan would, with hands in the air and air drumming. He was all fired up and brash and full of strong ideas that we respected.”