Interview: Rush's Neil Peart talks drum solos
It's mid-afternoon in New York City, and Neil Peart is unwinding. And how exactly does Rush's world-famous drummer and lyricist kick back in the Big Apple? By solving a math problem, of course. But this particular equation has a very specific purpose, and it's one that will soon be played out in front of TV cameras, a studio audience and millions of home viewers, for Peart is one of the stars - in fact, he's the closing act - of Drums Solos Week on The Late Show With David Letterman.
There's just one little hitch: The show's producers have asked the renowned sticksman, who this Thursday (9 June) will follow performances by The Late Show's own Anton Fig, along with Sheila E and drum legend Roy Haynes, to keep the razzle-dazzle down to "three, maybe four minutes," says Peart. Hence, the numbers crunching.
Just back from a morning rehearsal, Peart admits that when he was approached to be part of Drum Solos Week, his initial reaction was, "I don't know…it's not really my thing. But then I thought, Hey, a drum solo on TV - sounds great! I'd be very honored to be the ambassador to drum solos."
Only now there's the TV time factor, and it's got Peart's fertile mind running in circles. "My regular live drum solo is about eight and a half minutes, so I decided I'd have to do a mental edit, accelerate the changes and minimize the improvisational parts and so on. At the rehearsal, during my first attempt, I had it down to about four minutes and 50 seconds, and the producers were giving me these worrisome looks." Peart's second run-through was more acceptable: "I got it down to about four minutes and two seconds."
Trying to weed whack a heralded, road-tested piece of music had Peart literally saying to himself, "'Put this in, not that…This, not that…This, not that.' I found myself just racing, which is a problem when I come to the end and I'm playing with the Buddy Rich Big Band on the song Love 4 Sale, because I have to be in time with it. I was so edgy and found it so hard to settle into that nice groove. So all I have to do tonight is play that four-minute-and-two-second version of the solo, settle down and play the tempo and the end properly, and I'll be happy."
During a break in his TV schedule, Neil Peart sat down with MusicRadar to talk about the art of the drum solo - his own, those of his heroes, and how, over the past few years, he's moving "more and more towards improvisation."
You've pretty much answered this, but the solo you have to edit for The Letterman Show will basically be a truncated version of what you've been playing on the Time Machine tour.
"That's right. It's half improvised and half composed. I've tried to become more of an improvisational soloist over the past few years, pushing myself in the direction. So the first half of it follows a certain pattern of basic grooves – essentially, I try never to repeat, though – and then the second half is composed. I always say, 'I know where I'm going, but I don't always know how I'm going to get there.' To me, drum soloing is like doing a marathon and solving equations at the same time. Trying to edit everything for the Letterman performance is a lot for my tiny poo brain." [laughs]
Do you ever get nervous when it comes time to solo and the spotlight is all on you?
"A lot of it comes down to performing at will and doing all sorts of mental exercises. Performing live in front of an audience is such a matter of will – all of those things you can do just fine in your basement, suddenly you have to do them in front of hundreds or thousands of people, and it becomes a different matter entirely."
Well, maybe you just have to do it a bit more, Neil. You know, get out there…
[laughs] "That's right, I need more experience! Stage fright is a funny thing: There's a story about Buddy Rich that his sax player once told me. They'd be standing on the side of the stage waiting to go on, and he would look down at Buddy's hands and notice that they were shaking. Buddy said, 'You'd think after 60 years I'd get used to this' – because Buddy was in show business since he was a kid.
"Ironically, it can get stronger and more debilitating as you get older. In the case of Buddy Rich, he couldn't just go on stage and play – he had to be brilliant. I'm told the same thing happens to actors. Laurence Olivier had terrible stage fright. It's a very realistic thing, especially as certain expectations are placed on you. I know I feel it.
"Stewart Copeland calls it the 'Eric Clapton Factor,' because Eric Clapton hated not being able to go out and play the guitar casually – he had to be brilliant. In fact, Stewart Copeland himself stopped playing the drums for a few years after the first go-round with The Police because of the 'Eric Clapton Factor.' He just wanted to go out and play; he didn't want to have to be 'brilliant' all the time. It's a very strange occurrence, and I certainly feel it when it comes to drum solos. I'm naked out there without the band. I have to conquer my nerves and perform with skill and grace, without all the terrible things like flubs and drumsticks flying around." [laughs]
Here's a left-field question. What are your thoughts on drummers, some of them very famous ones, who have been very 'anti-drum solo'? Ringo Starr, for example - as you know, he had to be talked into playing his one and only solo in The End by the other Beatles.
"And that's if he actually played it. I think it might have been Paul McCartney." [laughs]
"Well, listen to the drumming on Paul's first solo record."
No, of course, Paul's a good drummer…
"That's all I'm saying. The sound, the feel… That's all I'm saying." [laughs] But you know, Stewart Copeland, who's a good buddy of mine, he's very 'anti-drum solo,' too. Yet he jokes that when he was a kid, around the same era as I was, that any drummer who didn't play drum solos was 'lame.' But it can be too much of a good thing, sure. Take John Bonham, who's a drummer I greatly admire: I watch some of his performances, and they're fantastic, but you know, it gets long and self-indulgent.
"If drummers are 'anti-solo,' that's up to them. They're musicians, and they can play whatever they want. But my inspirations early on were people like Buddy Rich, seeing him on The Tonight Show, or Gene Krupa. I think of The Gene Krupa Story movie, which opens with an overhead shot of him playing so energetically and beautifully...
"Then there were a couple of early rock albums, like Vanilla Fudge with Carmine Appice, and Rare Earth – great playing on those, recorded so well. Those were big inspirations for me. But not In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – that was not an inspiration. See, these are the divisions. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was the antithesis of what I wanted to do. It was plodding and monotonous. People would come up to me and go [affects stoner voice], 'Can you play In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, man?' And I would go, 'No, I cannot. I can play Wipe Out!' [laughs] But you know, that Ringo one...that's straight out of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
So wait…are you really saying that you think Paul played Ringo's solo on The End?
"No! [laughs] I'm just joking. I'm making a joke, that's all."
OK, just checking.
"But, of course, you must know about that whole conspiracy theory that Bernard Purdie played on The Beatles' records. But then that was started by Bernard Purdie himself. He said it. And then he was vilified for it.
"It's funny, though: When I was growing up, I played along to the radio, so I played along to Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Association and The Byrds, and I was really playing along to Hal Blaine. He played on all of those records and so many more. There was another drummer who said that he was shattered to find out that his six favorite drummers were all Hal Blaine!
"So the whole thing isn't so outrageous. If Bernard Purdie said that, why was he so vilified? He'd already played with Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan and others. I was just throwing that in as a joke, that's all. [slight pause] But just check out that first Paul McCartney album – that's all I'm saying." [laughs]
The drum solo you're performing on the current Time Machine tour – how would you say it differs from past solos?
"Well, as I said, it's much more about improvisation. When I did the Anatomy Of A Drum Solo DVD, and that was only five years ago, I defined myself as a compositional drummer, and my longtime teacher, Freddie Gruber, would say, 'When I watch you play, you're composing.' So I accepted that. OK, cool, I'm composing. But then I thought, No! I want to be an improviser, and I've worked very hard at that. It's an art. You don't just play whatever comes into your head; you have to be very deliberate about what you do. That's the way I look at it: I improvise very deliberately, and I try not to repeat myself. That's been a very big change in my playing over the last five years, and I'm moving more and more towards improvisation.
"It doesn't just happen, of course. You have to practice…and trust yourself. After 45 years of playing, I had to learn to trust my instincts at a very basic level. Certain patterns would recur, but I'd force myself to set them up differently or conclude them differently. 'Wait a second…I did that last night. I'm not going to do that tonight.' In a way, like I said before, you have to think like an editor. A producer is in my head selecting what I'm doing. It's a whole different level of thinking. And then, of course, there's that great jazz saying: 'If you make a mistake, do it twice!' [laughs] It takes a while for all of this to become second nature, but I'm working on it."
Being that you're also the band's lyricist, do certain words and images ever come into your head as you're either writing or playing a drum solo?
"Yeah, there's a thing called 'synesthesia,' and it refers to someone seeing a color as a sound or hearing a sound as a color. For me, drum elements are like hieroglyphics – I think of a certain physical figure and a little three-dimensional glyph will appear in my mind as I'm playing. Again, color and music are very relatable. There is, of course, a language of written music in notation, but even though I don't use that, I have another kind of notation that's more like hieroglyphs, and each is a representative symbol that I use in my drum repertoire. [laughs] Transcribe that, bugger!"
Dude...[Peart laughs] Now, in Anatomy Of A Drum Solo, you talked about the Floating Snare – how did you happen upon that technique, and how important is it an element in your solos?
"It's something that I still use because it's a very free textural change. I describe it in a way as if it's 'floating over time.' I come out of a strong rhythmic section and go straight to snare, double-stroke roll, a very smooth textural feel without rhythmic interruption, if you like. And then I impose different transpositions on that and little figures that are over a floating tempo. What it means is that the time is floating. Rudimental snare work is something I've always loved. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Joe Morello were masters at that."
You've also said you're not afraid to get 'goofy' during a solo, adding the cowbells – you got that from watching The Marx Brothers.
"Yeah, yeah! It's a little figure from one of The Marx Brothers movies. I think it was a little bit that Chico played on the piano. There's little splash cymbal chokes and tongue-in-cheek things that I do. There's a transition during my solo from the acoustic part to the electronic part, and when the drum riser turns around and the electronic drums face the audience, well, during that I play a little choo-choo train sample. It's a joke. Or I'll use The Hockey March during the solo – little inside jokes like that."
Do you ever respond to the audience and keep a certain part going longer than you planned? How much do you work off the crowd's reaction and energy?
"I do it all the time. Of course! It's called inspiration, and that's what live performance is really all about. You're feeding off that energy. One of the things that happened with the in-ear monitors was that it was hard to get a balance of the audience. So that was something that we've worked on. But yes, when you're playing, you definitely try to do something that works for you, works for the audience. And it happens during our songs, too – there are parts where you just feel it; everybody's knitted together and gets into this rhythmic frenzy."
Do Geddy and Alex have any input into your solos? Or do you just tell them to bugger off?
"Oh, they're very supportive. When I come in with a structure, they're the first to tell me when things are working. Or if I've played a particularly good solo live, they're the first to tell me 'great solo.' They're definitely supportive. And they like the break during the shows, too. Sometimes they have to go to the bathroom, you know." [laughs]
Have you ever gotten tripped up while playing a solo live, and if so, what do you do to recover?
"Well, there aren't really any mistakes because there aren't any consequences, which is a nice thing. But oh, so many things can happen. Like with the improvisational thing, I'll work out something on my little practice kit during a warm-up, and I'll decide to put it in my solo that night, and it physically won't work.
"There was an episode when I was working on a double cross-over on the toms to my right…well, on stage I have a couple of electronic pads impeding those, and the sticking that worked on my practice kit did not work on the live kit. So I'm playing along and suddenly 'spraaang!' - a stick goes flying. I think, Huhhh, and I pick up another stick and play it again. 'Braaaang!' - it happens again. 'Oh, I guess that doesn't work.' But all you can do is just keep playing. There's nothing else you can do."
Does the kind of kit you play ever color your drum solos? You're now a DW player – do their drums make you play differently?
"Oh, I think very much so. The response of the actual instrument… One of the blurbs I gave to DW a few years ago was, 'My DW Drums are truly a source of inspiration.' And the reason why I switched to DW, or any of the drums I've played over the years, was I would do a side-by-side test of one 9x13-inch tom of many different brands. I would play each drum in an identical way to find the one that pleased me musically. Over the years, whenever I did switch, it was always based on that test.
"The switch to DW, too, was partly inspired when I produced the Buddy Rich tribute. I sat in the studio with each of the different drummers and the bands as they ran down the music to get a real sense of the inside of the music and how it was working for everybody. And I sat beside the great Joe Morello when he played a little solo, and he was just making those drums sing with his incredible touch and his beautiful veteran technique. He just passed away recently, too. But the beautiful music that he drew from those drums, just with that touch, it was such inspiration.
"Yes, the ongoing developments in the 15 years that I've been with DW, the shared research and development that we undergo there, the different ideas they come up with for me that either work or they don't, that evolution of the instrument is absolutely inspiring to the performance."
I think it's safe to say that your drum setup isn't small; there's a lot of components to it. When you're soloing, do you ever look at a drum out of the corner of your eye and think, Hey, that one looks a little lonely? [Peart laughs] Maybe I should hit that one…
"One of the famous stories about Buddy Rich was that he would say that his second floor tom was for his towel and drink, and Keith Moon would say that, too: 'Oh, that one's just for my towel.' No, every one of them up there has a use, and certain ones do come into prominence from time to time – I do notice that. There are certain areas, like the effects areas or the cowbells or the piccolo snare drum and the electronics, where I do lay off of them for a while. But then I'll go, 'Hey! What about those cowbells?'"