Neil Peart of Rush - Craftsmanship Speaks

by Bruce Pollock

In Part 1 of this classic interview from 1986, Neil Peart described his relationship with words and rhythm, and talked about writing thought-provoking lyrics Geddy Lee can actually sing. Here in Part 2, he covers the nuts and bolts of Rush songwriting (he loves a good middle eight) and explains why the joy of creation is an overrated concept. He also names the rhythmically challenging Rush song they stubbornly kept in their setlist until audiences finally took to it.

Bruce Pollock (Songfacts): Do you have a special room where you work?

Neil Peart: Yes, but it's been a different one every album. Basically, I just need a table and a chair and my rhyming dictionary. On the last four or five albums, we've worked each time in a different place, but in each there's been a room where I can go to have quiet and to be able to think. You need solitude for the amount of concentration that it takes. I try to get to writing as early as possible, before anything else becomes distracting. I'll generally spend the whole day writing. Geddy and Alex work on the music during the daytime while I work on the lyrics, and we'll all get together after dinner to work on arranging and rehearsing the songs. So, in essence, days are devoted to individual work and the evenings are devoted to collective work.

Songfacts: Did you all ever work together in a kind of spontaneous atmosphere?

Peart: Not very comfortably, because for me the craftsmanship is important. I'm not happy with spontaneity musically either. I think you take such a chance. It's the same with those ideas you wake up with in the middle of the night. Sometimes you write them down and you wake up in the morning and go, What? And you rip it up and throw it away. Other times you save it.

We do, musically speaking, have improvisational periods during our soundcheck or just when we're playing together, and we record them and look for anything that happened that was magic. And there are ideas that we can mine out of there, taking advantage of the spontaneity of one day's mood. But to go onstage and expect people to indulge you, that doesn't work.

I prefer organization. I don't like lyrics that are just thrown together, that were obviously written as you went along, or the song was already written and the guy made up the lyrics in five minutes. I can tell - craftsmanship speaks. It's the same with reading books. I admire writers who have obviously worked and worked over what they've done to make sure it's clearly presented and as beautifully presented as it can be. And there's nothing like time and careful work to make that happen.

Songfacts: Have you adjusted to your own rhythms of writing?

Peart: For me, the important thing is to do the inspirational part of it when it happens, so I never have to go there with an empty book. At worst, if I'm stumped I can just put the work in progress aside and I have pages and pages of other things to look at. I'll just sit there and leaf through those and hope something will connect, and generally it will. But the important thing is to be enough ahead that it's not scary, because if you get frightened, that's when writer's block will occur. I never want to be in that position.

There have been things I've tried to write that haven't worked out, but I've been able to find out early. You don't have to write 200 pages and then discover you're working at nothing. By the time you've gone through a verse and a chorus and you've shown it to the other guys, you can see if it's working. It might be a satisfying technical exercise. I can be satisfied that I achieved what I set out to achieve even if the song wasn't used.

Songfacts: You do a verse and a chorus and show it to the others?

Peart: More often than not it's complete. I'll have a series of themes or a series of verses. Sometimes they become reversed. I'm very much in love with the middle eights. It's something I really love as a musical and lyrical departure. So, a lot of times I'll have a song that'll have a verse, chorus, verse, middle eight - the classic thing. But when the other guys get a hold of it, it'll be turned around and the middle eight will become the chorus or the verse will become the chorus.

Songfacts: Someone will come back and say, we need four more lines?

Peart: Or the opposite, where there'll be two lines too many. Or a song just wants to be structured a different way musically. Those things are never negative. They're always a challenge. Sometimes it can't be done, and if you have truly done a good job and distilled the lyrics down to their most essential form, there's not much you can do with it. But if the music's demands are stronger, and if the lyrics can be messed around with, that's very exciting to do.

Songfacts: Do you ever work to a finished melody?

Peart in the groove on the Permanent Waves tour in 1980. Courtesy Bill O'Leary - see more of his photos <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.Peart in the groove on the Permanent Waves tour in 1980. Courtesy Bill O'Leary - see more of his photos here.
Peart: Very often the guys will have worked on something musically and made a tape of it for which they have nothing particular in mind. "Grand Designs," on the last album, was done that way. They had the musical ideas laid out and just made a little tape for me with guitar, keyboards and drum machine, and I had that. So, if I'm stumped on something that I've been working on, I pull out that tape and try to close my mind off for a minute and listen to the tape.

"Chemistry" was a true collaboration between the three of us. The other guys had a couple of key phrases they wanted to express, so they gave me the music. That was easy because all the groundwork was done. Playing with words comes so much easier than having to dream up the whole thing.

Songfacts: Does the concept of each album start with you?

Peart: Usually there isn't a concept. This album was the first time I decided from the beginning that I wanted to address as many vignettes of power as I could. In the past there have been themes in each of the albums, but they have been more after the fact. For instance, on Grace Under Pressure, the theme of that title seems very obvious in each of the songs, but in fact it came after, and the songs were each being written about different reactions. The theme of that album, to me, is pathos, and it came through sometimes third-hand experiences, but most often second hand, observing my friends. That was a period of time when a lot of people were out of work and having difficulties in terms of self-esteem. They had reached a point in their lives where they felt they should be established and they weren't. People were having life crises not only in employment, but also in terms of their romances. All of those things came to a head in my perception and I was writing with a great deal of empathy. It wasn't always understood by either listeners or critics, but that was the stem of it all. So, after the fact I realized that the theme of the album illustrated the "grace under pressure" concept. That album was made under a great deal of difficult circumstances for us personally, too.

Songfacts: Doesn't it seem to you that sometimes a group is categorized for its music, but its message isn't considered as important as that of an individual singer/songwriter?

Peart: That's OK. As a member of the audience it was that way to me, too. If people don't take all the trouble interpreting lyrics that I took in creating them, that doesn't bother me, because I'm a musician first and not just a lyricist. I only spend two months out of every two years doing that and the rest of the time I'm a drummer.

Songfacts: Do you feel that Rush is the best vehicle for your self-expression or do you have a goal to express yourself elsewhere too?

Peart: That's complicated, because being a drummer first, the kind of liberty I have in Rush is important to me. Stylistically I never feel limited as a drummer and that will carry over lyrically, too. There's no way I'll ever write anything good that won't be suitable for Rush. On the other hand, I have written things with which I was happy but which didn't fit into the scheme of things at a given time. But I have no trouble putting those away. Those things always lead me on to something else.

We have musical ideas all the time that never get fully developed, but at the same time they lead us to another area. Or even things that do get developed and recorded, from an artistic point of view, a lot of times we're not satisfied. At this point we've gone through several periods of different stylistic approaches, different areas of influence and at this moment they might seem indulgent to us or naïve, but without that experimentation we couldn't have arrived now at the ability to write a five-or-six-minute song and put everything into it that we do. We can write a song that will have complicated time signatures but it won't be five minutes of that. It'll be two minutes of that. But the point is that we can change types of signatures three or four times in a song very comfortably.

I went through periods the same way lyrically of being over-ornamental and spending a lot of time developing an atmosphere lyrically. I don't do that anymore. I want five words to do what I used to use five lines to do. I'm fairly satisfied with my body of lyric writing over the last four or five years, but prior to that it was strictly kindergarten, strictly groundwork and experimentation. Musically too, I don't have much use for our stuff prior to 1980. That's not negative. That's the way it should be, because we were honestly experimental. We pushed ourselves over our heads lots of times and we were grappling for some kind of grip on the technique that we were aiming for.

Songfacts: Do you feel you have to distill your material to get it played on commercial radio?

Peart: No, I don't. The hardest thing is to have something that's both personal and universal. To me, that's the aim. I try to find something that moves me - a lot of times it's anger, but sometimes it can be pathos or it can be joy. I can be thrilled by the world at large or by nature or some small experience.

Adolescence is a common theme for me. The crossover between innocence and disillusionment is something I have addressed a lot, because it's something I can personally relate to and illustrate, but at the same time it's universal. I don't want to just be confessional, like a Joni Mitchell. That's an area I've tried to avoid. At the same time, that's what gives you personal involvement, and without that impetus sometimes it's hard to get going.

Fortunately, I'm very prone to anger, very prone to outrage in the way people act and the way they treat each other and the world we live in. So, all these things act as an impetus to me, but I couldn't write only about my own areas of outrage. I like to find those and translate them into something that is universal.

Songfacts: Do you feel that your best lyrics have become your best songs?

Peart: No, not always. It's weird how it goes. There's so much chemistry involved and there's so many intangible things that happen. There are ones where the music has been better than the lyrics or the lyrics better than the music. "Middletown Dreams" is a good marriage of lyrics and music. "Mystic Rhythms" is another one.

Songfacts: You said there's a magic moment when you hear a song for the first time. Is there another magic moment when you conceive of a song for the first time or finish it for the first time?

Peart: That's a good point. I think the joy of creation is very overrated. The irony is that the moment goes by so fast. When I'm working on a piece of lyrics and I have the theme of it going and I'm working away, there is that moment when I realize, yes, this is going to work. But then I'm gone. I'm gone into making it work. And then the knots in the brain start to become untied.

I'm figuring out, OK, this line goes to that line, this verse to that verse. You can't sit back and go, Oh, I'm great. The moment is great, but you can't just sit back and feel fulfilled by it.

To me the most satisfying time of making an album is the writing period. We listen to a demo, and yes, this is exciting, and it's what we wanted it to be and it gets you off. That is the ultimate return that you will get from the song. And then you'll spend another six months recording the basic tracks, doing the overdubs, doing the vocals, doing the mixing. At the end of it all there's no joy of creation - there's no sitting back and going, "This is finished and wow, I'm so happy," because you're so tired and drained from all of the mental demands. You don't have anything left to throw a party. In the demo period the rewards are instantaneous.

Songfacts: Is there another level where you see a song you've worked on and believed in going over with the audience?

Peart: You picked out a very important thing, because at the end of an album it's impossible for us to judge which songs will truly be popular and which won't. We're inevitably surprised. And then there are songs like "Vital Signs," from our Moving Pictures album. At the time it was mixed it was a very transitional song. Everybody had mixed feelings about it, but at the same time it expressed something essential that I wanted to say. That's a song that has a marriage of vocals and lyrics that I'm very happy with. But it took our audience a long time to get it, because it was rhythmically very different for us and it demanded the audience to respond in a different rhythmic way. There was no heavy downbeat - it was all counterpoint between upbeat and downbeat, and there was some reflection of reggae influence and a reflection of the more refined areas of new wave music that we had sort of taken under our umbrella and made happen.

That song took about three tours to catch on. It was kind of a baby for us. We kept playing it and wouldn't give up. We put it in our encore last tour - putting it in the most exciting part of the set possible - and just demanded that people accept it because we believed in it. I still think that song represents a culmination, the best combination of music, lyrics, rhythm. It opens up so many musical approaches, from being very simplistic and minimal to becoming very overplayed. Everything we wanted in the song is there. That song was very special to us. But we had to wait. We had to be patient and wait for the audience to understand us.

January 7, 2020
Here's Part 1 of this interview

More Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Comments: 1

  • Shawn from MarylandRambling thoughts and opinions that don't amount to anything: Vital Signs is a great song and the outro makes it a great choice for an encore song.
    I like Middletown Dreams, but I LOVE Mystic Rhythms. To me, that song is amazing. But, my vote for best marriage of music and lyrics would be "Losing It" from Signals. The song is touching and very personal to me. Thanks for the posting the interview.
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