RUSH released Clockwork Angels in July of this year and for those of you who didn’t know, it’s a concept album about the story of a young man who flees a land designed to function in perfect mechanical order. The concept reflects the philosophy of the band’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart and in a rare interview with Canadian website Macleans, Neil talks about musical integrity, freedom and his fight to escape precision. Check out some extracts from that interview below:
Q: Thirty-eight years ago you joined Rush, and the next day you went shopping for instruments for your first tour. What are your memories of that time?
A: I remember all of us riding in the truck down to Long & McQuade [a music store in Toronto]. What a young musician’s dream, to say, “Look at those chrome drums. Look at that 22-inch ride cymbal. I’ll have those.” It was one of those unparalleled exciting days of your life.
Q: Did you feel you were embarking on a great, lifelong journey?
A: No, nothing like that. When I was young, my ambitions were very modest. I thought, “If only I could play at the battle of the bands at the Y, that would be the culmination of existence!” And then the roller rink, and you work your way up branch by branch. Whereas if you’re [thinking], “I want to be a rock star”—those kind of people just want to know how they can start at the top, and they’re doomed not even to get to the bottom.
Q: That said, the hero of Clockwork Angels, called Owen Hardy in the novelization [by friend and science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, to be published in September], says, “I can’t stop thinking big.”
A: Ah, the classic dreamer, and one of the lovely distinctions that Kevin and I wove over the character with reflection to our own pasts. When I was in the band J.R. Flood in St. Catharines, where we were doing pretty well, I said to my bandmates, “Let’s go to London [England].” I did, on my own, but it surprises me to this day that no one wanted to go with me. I went hungry and wasn’t finding fame and fortune as quickly as I’d fantasized, but there was nothing daunting to me at the time. Like Owen, I did stumble into things, and a trail of events that could not have happened otherwise in one sense led me toward the person I am today. I lived away from home for the first time; I got a real job and proved myself in a workday situation, and thus I was never afraid anymore. As crises came up later on—“Oh, we have to compromise, and the record company wants to do this,” I’d be like, “No, I don’t have to.”
Q: It seems as though now, with your full-length concept album, Clockwork Angels, you’re swimming against the musical tide.
A: Yeah, but it grew from the bottom up. The reverse is how we worked in the ’70s: I would think of a grand plan and then build the pieces to fit it. This started as a simple [idea]—the steampunk image and aesthetic I liked, I suggested to the guys as the basis for some kind of extended work. It built up to [the album] piece by piece by organic expansion. All the music was created by Geddy and Alex jamming in the studio, and many of the lyrics were just extemporized over email. There’s so much life experience in this story—it’s not just a far-blown fantasy. Wish Them Well [offers] a very mature response to the world that it took me a long time to learn. In a lot of our early stuff, my lyrical inspiration was anger, for sure. [laughs] There’s still a lot I’m angry about, a lot of human behaviour that’s appalling and despicable, but you choose what you can fight against. I always thought if I could just put something in words perfectly enough, people would get the idea and it would change things. That’s a harmless conceit. With people too, you constantly think, “If I’m nice to people and treat them well, they’ll appreciate it and behave better.” They won’t, but it’s still not a bad way to live.
Q: Clockwork Angels deals with concepts of fate, circumstance, and free will, which you’ve been writing about throughout your career. What are your thoughts on these issues now?
A: I remain the optimist: you just do your best and hope for the best. But it’s an evolving state of mind. I still totally believe in individual rights and individual responsibility and in choosing to do good. On the liberal side of things, they go to an extreme of how people need to be led, and they can’t handle freedom. Pure libertarianism believes that people will be generous and help each other. Well, they won’t. I wish it were so, and I live that way. I help panhandlers, but other people are, “Oh look at that—why doesn’t he get a job?” While I believe in all that freedom, I also believe that no one should suffer needlessly. A realization I had lately: it is impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and be a Republican. It’s philosophically absolutely opposed—if they could only think about what they were saying for a minute. That’s when you get caught up in the webs of what people call themselves and how they behave. You just become adaptable and try to lead a good life in ways that make sense, regardless. Because I know at the end of it, if I’m going to meet Jesus or Allah or Buddha, I’m going to be all right.