SKF NOTE: As of this writing I don’t remember where or when this interview with Neil Peart took place. The latest reference I’m finding is to the Rush song Prime Mover which was released in 1987. When I figure out the back story I will update this post. Having left in October 1983, I was no longer on staff at Modern Drummer for this interview, but that’s all I know.
What’s most interesting here, I think, are Neil’s answers to my asking him to separate his acoustic drumming from his electronic drumming so that I — and interview readers — can better understand how Neil puts those two parts of his drumming together onstage and in the studio.
Integrating electronics with acoustic drums was, in the 1980s, still a very new practice. I lacked the means to familiarize myself with electronic drum gear. I relied instead on asking drummers using the gear live and in the studio to explain using the electronics.
Scott K Fish: You’re admittedly no longer just playing drums onstage. Can you clarify what happens onstage?
Neil Peart: You have a split second decision when the synthesizer is triggered. I have them straight through my monitors so I can fall into them naturally. Either you go with it or you don’t.
If the timing is wrong, or the machine is screwing the sequence up, you ignore it.
It’s one thing to follow it through the whole song. The hard part is having them come in for bits and pieces.
You start with the timing and stay with it. The hardest is to play the song with your tempo close enough to exact that when the sequencer triggers you don’t have to slow down or speed [up]. That’s why you’re on the edge when it starts, ready to disregard it.
If it’s wrong you just block it out of your mind and play the song. It’s the same as if a click track was blasting in your mind and you’re not allowed to follow it.
SKF: What’s a tough song you play with sequencers?
NP: Prime Mover. The sequencer comes in part way through the song, goes away, then comes in later. I start the tempo as close to that sequence as I can because it’s not running at first. I’m playing in free space without even a click track.
We play through a couple of changes and then — BANG! — the sequence comes in at a dynamic point. I have to be at the right time, the same tempo as I was before, to go forward with the sequence.
We have a few songs like that. I have to be so conscious of the feel, and I have to rehearse it so much before the tour, to get those transitions and feels together. I only use headphones now on Red Sector A where it arpeggiates.
There’s no strong point of demarcation in the sequences and it’s really indistinct in an arena because it’s a bottom end 16th note pulse. If I can’t hear it really well it’s impossible to stay with it. And I have to stay with it through the whole song.
It’s the same as a click track. Once you’re used to it you don’t hear it anymore. Your beats obscure it. I’m conscious of them setting up but I don’t notice the sequences if they come in and stay in. If one sequence doesn’t happen, you play as if it were there.
This last tour I made up a new drum solo based on horn samples, orchestral shots, and all that; carefully constructed like a song. I worked on it for days. Naturally, one night none of that worked. I hit the pads and all I got was a click.
I had to improvise the solo without it. Everybody said it came off fine. I was livid. Again, my antipathy toward machines. I feel enormously betrayed when they let me down.