Neil Peart: Progressive Progress

It turns out Raskulinecz had such an interesting way of expressing those ideas that he soon earned an onomatopoeic nickname. “When he’d suggest a part to me it would be, ’Blah-da-ba-blah-da-ba-broom-bap-booujze,’” Peart demonstrates, “so we ended up calling him Booujze. But that was what was so inspiring about working with him — he was that inside everybody’s part. That’s the immersion that he brought and he kicked us a little higher, urging that little bit more outrageousness out of us.”

As an example, Peart tells the story of the album’s first track and single, “Far Cry,” a hard-rocking, super-melodic cut that Raskulinecz calls “the nearest to ’70s sounding Rush.”

“When we first played ’Far Cry’ for Nick, there’s this really intricate syncopated part at the beginning and end that took me hours to learn, and he’s listening and says, ’Could you solo over that?’ Of course the only answer from a drummer is, ’Yes, of course I can,’ but I would never have suggested it. It’s not the kind of way we would put ourselves forward, especially as Canadian guys.”

In a mixing room at Ocean Way Studios on Hollywood Blvd., Raskulinecz’s arms are flailing with considerable gusto as he gives DRUM! an exclusive playback of the nearly finished album and lives up to his nickname. Air drumming, air bass, air guitar, and air vocals come easy to the expert air-instrumentalist. With no small amount of enthusiasm he explains how in taking on the project he wanted to get back the feeling of an old Rush record. Peart, however, isn’t quite so certain that this was the band’s aim, or even what an old Rush record actually is.

“If we even thought about these things I’d be worried,” he laughs. “You know — ’What did people used to like about us?’ I see this happening with new bands, that sophomore album blues. Do you do what everybody said they liked or try to correct what people criticize? We really don’t think that way. We write and play so much that it’s instinctive and intuitive. Whatever we think is cool and exciting, that’s what we play. We don’t second-guess it — that’s totally outside of our terms of engagement.”

Not that it stopped Booujze from trying. “It was like a game — Nick would keep bringing up these forgotten mid-side album cuts from long ago and he knew them note for note. That was all very great but it didn’t have anything to do with what we were doing. We wanted to do something fresh, and it was clear to me from the demos that we were already onto that. He wasn’t going to tell us to write ’Tom Sawyer’ again, but he had been a fan, and let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with having this very knowledgeable, imaginative, productive fan in the studio when you’re making a record.”

Finding The Words

Long before Raskulinecz was even onboard for Snakes, Peart, singer/bassist Geddy Lee, and guitarist Alex Lifeson were busy laying down the album’s foundations. At his home in California, the process for Peart, as always, started with the lyrics. “This time around I hit on a new thing inspired by Robert Frost’s epitaph: ’I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.’ So some of my songs that were protest songs, I framed them like that, as if they were a relationship song between me and you, but in fact the ’you’ is a whole bunch of people in the world that I don’t happen to agree with.”

Another recurring theme for the record is religion, inspired by the motorcycle tour Peart took when the band last toured the U.S. While Lee and Lifeson were busy enjoying the luxuries of the tour bus, Peart forged his own path, choosing to travel between shows on his motorbike. “I ended up collecting church signs and all those little inspirational — or admonishing — signs that are in front of them, especially in the mid-south. There’s definitely a tsunami of religion that affects our side of the world and the Middle Eastern side of the world, so it’s very topical in a way. But it became topical to me by observing it first hand, and, consequently, quite a few of the songs reflect that observation.”

Peart also revisited lyrics he’d written 15 years ago, in particular a selection of ideas inspired by something he’d read in the front of his rhyming dictionary. “That’s where I found a set of traditional forms and sonnets, and one was a Malaysian form called the pantun. Each stanza you take the second and fourth line and make them the first and third line of the next one, and they all have to resolve after five stanzas back to the first line. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle, just as an exercise, and I never bothered handing them over to the guys. And then I was looking through them this year and thought maybe one of those would spark a musical echo. So there’s a song on the album called ’The Larger Bowl,’ where there’s an arbitrary chorus but it’s not, it’s in fact the fifth verse.”

Composing Parts

When Peart completes his lyrics he sends them to his bandmates in Toronto, who put together a basic backing track in their home studios to a drum machine. This demo is then sent back to Peart, who begins constructing drum parts around them. “One thing I like about working on demos separately is that I can just play everything, because there’s nothing at stake,” he says. “In the old days if we were all playing, you’d try as a drummer to lay down a foundation and then, as the other guys pulled their parts together, develop some interplay amongst them and maybe add your own decorations. But because I’ve got a demo just made with rough guitar, bass, and vocals to a drum machine, I just turn off that drum machine and try everything that might possibly work, and then eliminate the ridiculous, eliminate the impossible.”

Surprisingly, especially considering the idiosyncrasies and complexity of the material, he resists notating his parts. “I try not to write it out, even on an instrumental like ’The Main Monkey Business,’ which took me three days to learn. Instead I learned it by playing along until I found my place and found the transitions, and feels, and learned it as a piece of music. I want to play it until I feel it, and I have that luxury because I’m playing it basically by myself to those demos. I’ll play it over and over, and at a certain point I’ll go, ’I can beat that,’ and I’ll go out and do it again.”

Peart pushes himself with dogged determination in an ongoing attempt to play to his strengths and eliminate his weaknesses. “I realize I’m a compositional-type drummer and I love to compose an intricate, carefully constructed part, learn it, and then play it. On the other hand, I’ve learned to compensate for that by not letting myself cement down every fill and arrange every cymbal crash and every transition. I want to keep it dangerous, not know exactly how I’m going to go into chorus three, for example. Given my natural instincts, the part could become too over-rehearsed and regimented, so I’ve learned to trick myself.”

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