Who could blame a veteran artist from becoming bored beyond belief with the monotonous routine woven into the fiber of a major concert tour? One day, you’re driving 600 miles to get to a faceless arena in Omaha, only to play the show, collapse on the bus and wake up the next morning in Tennessee. Then, you realize you have six hours before you need to be on stage again and absolutely nothing to do until then besides play “Mario Kart” for the 400th time.
Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart has found an antidote to all of this, thanks to his trusty BMW motorcycle. The artist spent Rush’s 2004 30th anniversary tour riding between gigs on the bike, an experience chronicled in his new book, “Roadshow: Landscape With Drums — A Concert Tour by Motorcycle.” The volume will be released Sept. 25 via Rounder Books.
In it, Peart overcomes pesky police speed traps, painful bedbug bites, stalker fans, mechanical difficulties with the BMW and the disappearance of a road case filled with valuables to play nearly 60 shows for half-a-million fans in North America in Europe alongside bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. In an added twist, the person who recovered the road case actually left a message on Peart’s cell phone which he accidentally deleted, thus dashing any future hope of recovering the contents.
Peart granted Billboard.com a rare interview to discuss his experiences on the road and how they’ve influenced his ideas for the new Rush album, due early next year. The set will be the follow-up to 2002’s “Vapor Trails,” which debuted at No. 6 on The Billboard 200.
You’ve biked pretty much everywhere at this point. Are you running out of adventures?
It’s hard to say. With my previous book, “Traveling Music,” I really wanted to get starting writing something but I had no idea what. I just went off on a road trip to think about it and the road trip became the book. But this is one I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, just to describe to people what it’s really like.
Well, the thing is, a lot of times you aren’t doing anything other than moving from show to show, so I guess the narrative has to reflect the times when you’re kind of bored.
I’m aware of the glamour/fantasy nature of it. It’s kind of necessary in a way. I certainly had it when I was young. Even seeing a high school band when I was a kid, there was a certain magic just because they were under colored lights up on a stage. I was reading a book lately called ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton, and he did a beautiful job of weaving together the fantasy and the reality of travel. He used other writers and even paintings to illustrate it, and one he used was a travel brochure for Barbados. A brochure with palm trees and sandy beaches and tropical skies and all that, and that’s the same kind of fantasy maybe as seeing a musician on stage, but that image doesn’t have you in it.
And it’s like the saying, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ If you put yourself on that beach, under those palm trees and you went there, it’s like, ‘Here I am having a fight with my girlfriend, worried about work and I’ve got a stomach ache.’ That’s the nature of it that I try to point out in the book. Yes, I’m on stage but I’m thinking about I’m feeling bad one way or another, and real life is still going on.
So the road case that fell off the bike — is that just lost to history?
Yup. But it’s funny. At the time, I thought it would be okay. I’m an optimistic person by nature and I thought I’d be able to trace that number, but nope, it’s a dead end.
Have you found, having done several trips like this, that they’ve been directly inspirational to writing Rush lyrics?
Yeah, good point, and there are two levels to that. There are of course direct influences or images that I mention in there. If I go to China or to East Africa or wherever on my travels, I might bring back a specific insight or image that I use. But I think more often, and this is a perfect example in this case, but it’s my sense of the world. You know, when I’m traveling around in these small towns, I’m well out of the first class hotels and the private jets. I’m looking at people every day and their lives, and getting a perspective on my own life that way, and I think that has to be a huge influence, in the same way that travel does that.
Now, I often think about, ‘Okay, you know that little village I was in in Africa 10 years ago? Those people are still there, sitting around that fire tonight.’ That sense of the world is permanent, that change. And when I think about the United States too, I’m not just thinking about San Francisco or Manhattan. I’m thinking about those fading little towns in the Midwest I go through, and you see a restaurant closing, or a main street that’s fading. Somebody once dreamed, “One day I want to have my own gas station [or] my own little restaurant on Main Street.’ And when you see those things gone you know that it represents that tragedy. All of that I think contributes to a connection with the wider world and with other people and their lives.
Are you separating your observations for the book or for lyrics, or is it all sort of in one soup from which you can pick and choose?
Yeah, well the soup analogy’s not bad, considering the way the brain works. I think the sense of perspective is really important. Of course, because I’ve been a member of a band for 30 years and been pretty successful and all that, it is pretty easy, demonstrably easy, for a lot of people to lose perspective and to lose any sense of other people’s lives. Especially as a lyricist, I’m focusing on that. One of my main subjects is human nature and human behavior and the way people act and behave toward each other, so having a bigger picture of life even is invaluable there, to not be so alienated from things.
You have to draw upon what you know, so if my sense of that can be bigger in both senses, of seeing both the joy and the tragedy of everybody’s lives, then it has to inform my ability to express something that’s going to reach other people, rather than just talking about my own day-to-day satisfaction with my life.
On these long stretches of trip, do you ever listen to music while you’re riding?
I don’t. Some people do, and even some riders that I respect. My brother even listens to music when he skis, but he’s much more of an athlete than I am. Music plays all the time in your head is one thing that I find, and I’ve written before about the inner jukebox. Something you see suggests a line from a song and then that song plays in your head, and you remember the lyrics from “Monster Mash” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Driving and listening to music is one of my favorite things, [but] the motorcycle demands for me a higher level of engagement with the world around me, so I can’t really personally imagine combining the two. But at the same time, music certainly is playing all the time in my head.
Have you ever asked Geddy or Alex to join you on a ride, or have they asked you?
Well it’s not as easy as all that, to just throw your leg over a motorcycle. When I first started, Alex actually started at the same time, and we took a motorcycle safety class together up in Toronto. This must be ’94 or so, and he took to it right away and was good at it, but didn’t sustain the interest, and eventually sold his bike and just didn’t continue. And I’ve talked about it with Geddy. Of course, anything that any of us is interested in is something we talk about, and he’s just said, No, he’d be too afraid. I don’t like when any of my friends is out on a trip. I worry about them, and I think about it more than when I’m on the bike. [Then], I don’t worry because I feel in control, and if I’m careful enough I’ll be okay. I have a sense that if I’m ever afraid, it’s my fault because I shouldn’t let anyone put me in that position. There’s a funny mentality that goes on. Whenever somebody starts talking about getting interested in it, then I worry about them.
In the last pages of the book, you leave the prospect of future touring kind of up in the air. I don’t know if that’s changed since you wrote it…
It is true that in 1989 I announced that I wasn’t going to tour anymore, and have said that every time since and have gone back and decided [to do it] for all good reasons. One of the main ones to me is that a band plays live, so if I want to consider our band as a living, working thing then that’s the case. At this point, we’re right in the middle of working on new material. We started in May and took a break for the summer and we’re starting again next week. So of course, the four-letter word tour will come up. I haven’t in my own mind committed to [another tour] yet, but of course I haven’t ruled it out, either.
It seemed to me that “Vapor Trails” was a real return to a guitar/bass/drums sound without synthesizers. Were you pleased with that direction and can you see that remaining a key part of the sound?
Yeah, I can certainly say that it has been so far. We have probably eight songs that we all really like and are really fresh for us and drawing upon different influences and different approaches of writing. With us, it’s not a question of arguing among the three of us about things — it’s more us arguing with the song, in what it wants to be and how to approach it in that, so it’s a very interesting unified conflict. There isn’t friction among us but there’s often friction between us and the song we’re trying to write.
We started working kind of long distance because I’m living in California these days and the other guys are still in Toronto, so we’ve been trying to work at a distance like that. I’d send some lyrics to the guys and we got together back in March in my house up and Quebec and they played me what they’d been working on. It really was remarkably organic in a way that I haven’t heard [from Rush] before. We spent a month together in May working on those songs and developing our individual instrument parts for them. It’s early to characterize it, but it’s definitely fresh and different and that’s certainly satisfying.
You guys have always done a good job of filling the gap between tour cycles with live releases. Is there ever going to be a grand vault clean out, or is there nothing in there like that?
We don’t have anything, actually. We have never recorded a song that we didn’t release. I call it laziness, I mean, we would never have gone to all that trouble and then not put it out. Certainly we’ve abandoned many songs along the way — lost faith in them, is the way I always put it because we have a built-in barometer, and if we’re not motivated enough to work on the song, then to us it’s not worth it. On the other hand if we are motivated, it is worth it, and it’s gonna come out. I remember that “Caress of Steel,” in the old days of cassettes, had very uneven side lengths. I think one side was 20 minutes and the other was 25, and the record company wanted us to drop a song. We said, ‘No way! We went to all that trouble, it’s going on the record.’ So there is literally nothing unreleased. For us, there really is no vault to clean out.