Neil Peart – If the Simple Dumb Thing Works Best

SKF CORRECTION: Learned users of pointed out it is Steve Smith, not Neil Peart, playing drums on Jeff Berlin’s Subway Music. Neil plays on other tracks on the album.

It’s good to know the truth, and it’s good that the truth changes nothing about my comment to Neil in this post or about Neil’s answer.

I was sitting with Neil in his living room, about 25 years ago, when he played cuts from the Berlin album. The track I remembered had a shuffle rhythm with busy double bass drums. Subway Music seemed the likely song, but it’s not Neil.

SKF NOTE: During this interview Neil Peart defined “selling out” as playing drums “someone else’s way.” I mentioned Neil’s playing on Jeff Berlin’s album, Champion, specifically the song, Subway Music. To my ears, I said, Neil’s playing there doesn’t sound like the way he plays with Rush.

Neil’s answer is where we begin this excerpt.

Neil Peart: In a situation where there’s a musical empathy I’d bend to the needs of the song. The same as I’d give a Rush song a simpler part. I’d force myself to do it.

There’s a perfect example on Presto. The guys had written one song to a very simple plodding drum machine pattern. I tried everything, but nothing worked as well as that stupid lunkhead beat. If the simple dumb thing works best, it works best.

Philosophically I’ve quarreled my whole life with the less-is-more idea. I think more is more. A beautiful groove played simply is powerfully effective. I admire guys who can do that — plus. That groove is always present, but they have the chops and feel to go on top of it and spark songs.

Transitions are the weakness of many drummers who can lay down a nice feel and move to another feel. The points in-between are where a lot of people fall down. It’s still the thing on which I most focus.

Drummers I admire might play one fill in a song, but the way they set it up, every figure they play is flawless. When they get to that fill it has such impact.

I’ll never be a simple eighth note snare drum-tom-tom fill. Guys that play that well have too much class. A lot of R&B drummers are very exemplary of that quality; devoted to a simplicity of feel, but the rhythm they play needn’t be simple. The way they embellish it — end of measure figures, the big fill, a dynamic sweep into the midsection — that’s where their lights shine. That’s where a truly simple drummer could never rise above the simplicity.

I like hyperactive music that permits a lot of messing around, but still serves the music. Music is designed to be that way.

There are lots of Rush songs, like Tai Shan, that require a very sensitive, simple approach. Maybe a series of simple steps. Remembering them properly constructed, and putting them together, becomes very complex. Reproducing them as a single flow of music becomes the big challenge. As hard to play as any complex part.

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