Q&A: Neil Peart On Rush's New LP and Being a 'Bleeding Heart Libertarian'

'Too much attention and hoopla doesn't agree with my temperament'

neil peart
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic
Neil Peart of Rush performs in Universal City, California.
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Rush drummer Neil Peart doesn't do a lot of interviews. He's been Rush's main lyricist since joining the group in 1974, but during the past four decades he's been content to let Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson do most of the speaking for the band. But the group is releasing their new concept record Clockwork Angels this week, and Peart wants to take some of the slack off his bandmates. "Unlike poor Geddy, I haven't talked much about this record," says Peart. "He was just in Europe and he figured he did 60 interviews. It's always the same questions, especially in the foreign ones, like, 'how did you get started?'"

Rolling Stone spoke with Peart about Rush's latest concept record, their upcoming tour, their increased presence in pop culture and where he stands politically these days. 

What gave you the initial idea to make this a concept record?
The nice thing is that it sort of grew in the telling. It started with a conversation in 2009. We got together in Los Angeles and started to think about our next year.  One of the projects we discussed was doing a compilation of all of our instrumentals, which Geddy suggested. I said, "Yeah, maybe we could make a new one to go with it. Maybe something a little more extended." 

Those words "a little more extended" in the course of this comfortable conversation got me thinking. I said, "Well, I've been thinking lately about this setting ... And I explained this whole steampunk thing to the guys and they seemed kind of intrigued. So I started working, and the story came together organically. 

The Seven Cities of Gold always fascinated me. Southwestern U.S. history especially fascinates me. The whole spur of the Spanish exploration of the Southwestern U.S. was the search for these mythical Seven Cities of Gold. The Spanish ones would go back to Mexico City and say, "I saw it! I saw it! I just couldn't get to it, but I could see this city of gold in the distance!" They kept believing it and sending expeditions. 

Another story that fascinated me was the Wreckers. This Daphne Du Maurier novel Jamaica Inn describes these people called "The Wreckers" on the coast of the Cornwall in Britain. They would not only plunder shipwrecks, but they would actually put up a fake light and attract the ships in a storm to crash on their shores so they could loot them. It's just a shocking example of inhumanity, and it happens to be a true story. I wove it all of that into the story of this album.

Do you approach your lyric writing differently if you're telling a linear story?
Honestly, no. In many of our albums that seem to be disparate songs, I've got a bone in my teeth, or my preoccupations at the time tend to come out. In the 1980s, both Hold Your Fire and Power Windows emerged with a pretty strong theme running between them that I hadn't even considered . . . What I've learned over the years is that the craft of songwriting is trying to take the personal and make it universal – or in the case of telling a story, taking the universal and making it personal. 

This record examines a very different future than what you portrayed in Rush's 2112 album. Are they companion pieces in any way?
No, in every way. It's really different. 2112 was released in 1976. I was younger than you are. We were feeling our way musically, lyrically, technically on our instruments. All of those things were in the growing stage. But if someone had asked me two years ago, honestly, "Do you think you guys will do a concept album with a full story?" I'd say, "No!" I would've laughed or sneered, honestly. So that's the nice thing, that this wasn't at all overly considered or plotted at all. It's just something among the three of us and our enthusiasms it grew. It was nice and organic.  

Are you going to play a big chunk of this album on tour this year?
Yeah. That's certainly the plan. On the R-30 tour we played a lot of older stuff just to celebrate our 30 years. And that liberated us on the Snakes and Arrows tour, where we played eight or nine new songs. We had given fair tribute to the older stuff on the previous tour. And then on the Time Machine tour, we felt liberated that we could stop doing a lot of Snakes and Arrows songs and be more playful with the set list.

We had a very successful revivification of some of the material that we thought could be better than it was originally, like the title track to Presto. We just loved playing it last tour, and we played it in a way that we couldn't when we were touring in 1989. I remember discussing it with the guys one night over dinner and just saying, "That song is so much better than it ever was, and it has a feel that it should have had on the record." Geddy said, "Well, we have a different clock now." That's true, and such an important, fundamental observation.

For me as a drummer, being responsible for that pulse . . . that change happened in the mid-Nineties when I studied with Freddie Gruber and worked really hard on my drumming, and it did give me a different clock. It gave me so much more control and understanding of time and pushing it and pulling it and creating anticipation, tension and release. It can all be done within metronomic time, but it's not easy. It takes time and it takes understanding. 

I think that a lot of people are surprised to learn that you still take drum lessons. You're seen as this drum master by most everybody.
What is a master but a master student? And if that's true, then there's a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession. I've been put in this position, and I certainly don't underrate that. I get to be a professional drummer. Consequently, I feel a responsibility that I really do dedicate myself to that all the time, even though when we're off tour I'm in my exercise routine. I have to keep my instrument fit for next month when I have to start rehearsing for the tour. So it's a full-time responsibility. It's a joyous one and one I'm very grateful for.

Is part of you tempted to just play this whole album straight through on this tour, like you did with Moving Pictures last time?
Honestly, we never know until we get to rehearsals. We always pick at least a half-dozen songs more than we end up playing, because the show gets too long. The songs we pick are the songs we want to play, and this time we picked a whole bunch of older ones that we want to bring back and present in a different way. So our wish list always exceeds what's possible.

I feel like Rush has gotten more attention in the past few years than any time I can remember. How do you feel about that? Does it feel like vindication? Do you care at all?
It is a vindication. I'm ambivalent, personally. Too much attention and hoopla doesn't agree with my temperament. I'm more introverted and I like to be an observer, so I'm ambivalent about that part, but it is a great vindication . . . and for our fans. Because as much as we're been vilified over the years, they were, too. It was always like, "Oh, what do you know? You're a Rush fan." You could definitely hear that in the schoolyard. 

Honestly, it wouldn't make our day any sweeter or not, but for the whole spirit of Rush – for our fans and everything – you chose the right word. It's a vindication. We've been doing what we think is right this whole time . . . and that's part of it too. There's a bit of personal pride there, too. It's self-evident that we're hardly calculating and commercial with our music, but we've really tried to do everything the right way, or what I perceive to be the right way. It's kind of a vindication of that principle too. People can look at us and see that you can do things your way and still succeed. 

For us to have worked so hard and been successful and respected for it, that goes right smack in the face of cheap panderers. That just occurred to me now, but it's true. They're always saying, "Oh man, I have to do it this way, have to make the song simple and repetitive 'cause that's what people like, 'cause that's my job and if I can just put a smile on the face of those hard-workin' people then my job is done." You know, that attitude has been kind of my enemy all of my life.

Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to play music that I liked, and even when I was in cover bands when I was a teenager we only played cover tunes that we liked. That was the simple morality that I grew up with. It's hard to think of the number of bands that just do what they want.

It's true. You guys pack every arena in the world, and you've never once tried to write a commercial song.
Yeah, no question about it. And that's from our reputation for live performances. We devoted ourselves to it. We always played the very best show we had in us that day. And it didn't matter if it was 2,000 people or if we were opening in front of five other bands in front of 20,000 people. Every show was like that for us. A point of honor, a point of pride and total dedication. That's what builds a reputation, and the reliability that we do tend to show up on time.  

That reputation carried us through different periods where maybe we weren't as popular in terms of radio play or record sales from one album to another. People knew, even if they didn't care for that particular album, they would still enjoy our show. And so they kept coming to see us.

Boy, if you're not a working live act, your options are vanishingly few. We met Pete Townshend a couple of weeks ago at an awards show. We told him that we had just finished making an album and he kind of scoffed: "Making an album – waste of time these days, isn't it?" Well . . . we can only agree. We said, "Yes, but we had to do it. We wanted to do it." But the reality is, of course, as a thriving, bring-home-a-paycheck human being, it's working live. And the number of bands that do get airplay and can't sell tickets . . . That would be worse.

This is somewhat random, but you were interested in the writings of Ayn Rand decades ago. Do her words still speak to you?
Oh, no. That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile. I had come up with that moral attitude about music, and then in my late teens I moved to England to seek fame and fortune and all that, and I was kind of stunned by the cynicism and the factory-like atmosphere of the music world over there, and it shook me. I'm thinking, "Am I wrong? Am I stupid and naïve? This is the way that everybody does everything and, had I better get with the program?"

For me, it was an affirmation that it's all right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. It was a simple as that. On that 2112 album, again, I was in my early twenties. I was a kid. Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I'm an idealist. Paul Theroux's definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I've brought my view and also – I've just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we're all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that's when I evolve now into . . . a bleeding heart Libertarian. That'll do.

Do you still see yourself working like this in 10 years?
I don't think it'll be possible, honestly. What I do is so athletic that I'm glad I've been able to hold onto my peak this long. And like I said before, I dedicate myself all the time to that kind of physical stamina and fitness levels and not to let it go. It reminds me of something a good friend of mine, Doane Perry, said – the drummer for Jethro Tull, another very long-lived, if ever-changing, unit. He was saying that even when Tull goes off the road he can't stand to stop. He's afraid if he stops he won't be able to do it again. And I kind of get that. I'm afraid to let go of the fitness and the peak and the devotion to the instrument in one way or another.

The next two years are mapped out pretty well, and that's enough. We usually only plan one year in advance. So that's the other funny thing about longevity, because we watched one year go by and two, three, four, each one one at a time, but we never planned, ever, more than a year in advance. Now we're planning the next two years, so that's more than enough future for anyone to dare to presume.