Lots of people play drums; fewer make a living doing it; even fewer get famous; and a very select few achieve the sort of legendary status where the general public knows their name. Neil Peart is one of the select few who sits atop this drumming pyramid. He has occupied the drum throne for Canadian progressive rock trio Rush for 38 years. Always the intellectual, Peart acknowledges, “I’m approaching my sexagenarian years,” which is not nearly as perverted as it sounds. It merely means he’s entering his sixties. This makes Peart just slightly older than his two bandmates: Geddy Lee (bass/keyboard/vocals) and Alex Lifeson (guitars/keyboards).
Given their collective age and status, Rush could rest on their laurels and do what many older rock legends do: periodically show up for an award show, play a tune, and then go home. But Rush has never done what most bands do. In 2010 and 2011, Rush did something very few aging rock bands do: They recorded a full length studio album. (Rush’s last studio album was 2007’s Snakes & Arrows.) Rush’s latest offering, Clockwork Angels, is an ambitious concept album filled with 12 original songs that show Rush’s three members performing at least as good, if not better, than ever. If that weren’t enough, Peart (who doubles as Rush’s lyricist and is an author of several books) cowrote a Clockwork Angels novel with science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson. The novel is based on Peart’s story and lyrics.
Rush will support the Clockwork Angels album with a US tour that begins in September 2012, followed by a 2013 European tour. In July 2012, we caught up with Peart at DW’s Drum Channel studios in Oxnard, California, as he rehearsed in preparation for the upcoming tour. Peart graciously offered us a rare opportunity to have a master class with the master himself.
Although Peart has played drums for nearly 47 years, “practicing” drums remains one his favorite things “because it’s so free of responsibilities and consequence.” To prepare for a Rush tour, Peart begins rehearsing by himself for several weeks before he ever rehearses with his bandmates. “Geddy always jokes that I’m the only musician he knows that rehearses to rehearse ... But I do love that, the feeling of it even without an audience. It’s just between me and those drums.”
Peart has no particular warmup routine before playing the drums on any given day. His warmup is more of a long-term process where “yesterday was the warm-up for today.” According to Peart, “About four months before I start rehearsing my drum parts, I start working on the physical side of things,” with heavy workouts three times a week that include “cardio, stretches, and yoga.” While yoga helps keep Peart’s muscles “supple” to protect him from injury, his workout regimen also includes weight training and long distance swimming.
Because of Peart’s “physical devotion” to himself as an “athlete,” he has managed to avoid injury. “The essence of good fitness is building up strength around all your potential vulnerabilities ... I’ve always worked on shoulder work, for example, and I think that protects from shoulder injury because all the surrounding muscles are that much stronger, and the joints. I don’t have elbow trouble or [trouble in] the surrounding areas because I take care to exercise the areas around them and build up that general level of stamina and fitness.” To achieve these goals, Peart focuses on maximizing “reps and not weight.” Still, he admits, “nothing prepares you for drumming but drumming. The impact. I do play so hard because I like the sound and feel of that, and that’s part of what I have evolved into as a player.”
Despite his legendary status and phenomenal playing abilities, Peart has remained humble enough to “surrender” to a few “great teachers” over the years. In the ’90s, for example, Peart felt his playing had become a bit stiff. He loosened up through studies with the late Freddie Gruber, who passed away in 2011. Of Gruber, Peart says, “I’m still being so much nurtured by the directions that he pointed me.” Peart is not alone in this regard. Gruber’s students comprise a “who’s who” of drummers, including Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, Adam Nussbaum, and Peter Erskine – the esteemed jazz drummer with whom Peart studied in 2008. Peart chose Erskine based on recommendations from bassist Jeff Berlin, Don Lombardi (founder of DW Drums), “and the community of drummers around here that I love so much.
“We thought Peter would be good, and Peter had studied with Freddie, so he knew where I was coming from. I went to Peter mainly to upgrade. I said to him the first day, ’You know, as far as I’m concerned you’re a surgeon, I’m a butcher.’
“He said, ’You’re not a butcher.’
“I said, ’Yeah, I’m a good butcher, but I’d like to get more surgery into it.’”
With Erskine, Peart had clear goals. “Groove playing is absolutely what I wanted to go toward – smoothness, improvisation.” Erskine had Peart practice simple quarter-notes and other exercises with a programmed metronome that would click for two bars and then go silent for two bars. “Every day, I’d pick a very slow tempo and a fast one.” For Peart, playing a slow tempo for two bars “is a long time ... I was just going on faith that it was worth doing, and it was kind of enjoyable, too. I always say that for six months I played nothing but hi-hat, but it never got boring because I wasn’t just doing time exercises. I was playing ... I would be doing all kinds of syncopations on hi-hat and exploring all rhythmic things, at the same time making them fall into perfect time.”
The fruition of Peart’s studies with Gruber and then Erskine can be heard throughout Clockwork Angels. Peart considers the album the “culmination of what I always wished I could play like, and sound like and feel like.”