It's all about the Rush
|Big Blue Owl
Joined: 17 Aug 2006
Location: Somewhere between the darkness and the light
|Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 8:53 am Post subject: T H E G A M E O F S N A K E S A N D A R R O W S
|T H E G A M E O F S N A K E S A N D A R R O W S
By Neil Peart
?PRIZE EVERY TIME!? I used to have to call that out, over and over, one long-ago
summer on the midway at Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. ?Catch a
bubble, prize every time!? The ?bubbles? were ping-pong balls with painted
numbers that floated on a jet of forced air, like popcorn. You had to catch one with
a tiny net, and its number would match the array of shelves behind me, rewarding
the bubble catcher with a stuffed animal, keychain, or ?magic trick.? Prize every
Back then I was about twelve, and I?m older now, but speaking of prizes (and
startling segues), I will never forget first hearing the initial few songs for this
album. On a snowy day in March 2006, Alex and Geddy came to visit me at my
house in Quebec, and brought a CD of a handful of songs they?d put together in
Geddy?s home studio in Toronto, with some lyrics I?d sent up from California.
It is always a thrill to hear my words sung for the first time, when those dry,
printed lines I?ve labored over finally become charged with life. ?Prize every
time.? Plus, there?s a sense of affirmation in knowing that Geddy found those
words worth singing (many are sent; few are chosen).
When I first listen to a rough sketch of guitar, bass, vocal, and drum machine,
I am hearing it as the lyricist, seeing how the words work, and I am also listening
as the drummer, knowing I will have to learn that song and play it, maybe
hundreds of times. In a larger sense, though, I?m really listening as a ?fan??
someone who wants to love that song. Even on first listen, I felt that way about
?Bravest Face? and ?The Way the Wind Blows,? and I was especially excited by
how different they were from anything we had done before?fresh and vital, yet
rooted in some deeper musical streams.
Three decades of working together have given us wells of experience to
draw upon, sure, but perhaps more important are the longer intervals between
songwriting sessions, when we can let those aquifers fill. In the early years, it was
an album every six months, then every year, then every two years, but in the past
decade, for one reason and another, it?s been five years between projects. And it
seems that with more time to learn and grow, we can still surprise ourselves.
At the time of hearing the first few songs, the only word I could think of for
their essence was ?spiritual.? Another quality might be the almost oxymoronic
sense of ?raw sophistication? (good name for an oyster bar). They demonstrated
our band?s characteristic alloy of driving rhythms behind soaring melodies and
harmonies, all set in a framework that was complex, and crafted with care. But
this time, while the arrangements remained intricate and dynamic, the elements
were often simple and direct?basic hard rock and blues forms. The Raw and the
Cooked. (Still thinking up names for oyster bars.)
In May 2006, the three of us moved into a small studio in Toronto to work
together for a month. In that northern season of riotous bloom, the city was bright
with flowers and spreading leaves, washed in warm sun and sudden thunderstorms.
Our work was blossoming, too, and by the beginning of June we had eight songs
we all liked. We adjourned for the summer, planning to pick up again in
September, and keep working until it was finished.
We had also made some production decisions that would be fruitful later.
Engineer Rich Chycki had worked with Alex on the mixes for the R30 DVD, and
we felt he had done a perfect job of maximizing our live sound. We signed him
up to be our recording and mixing engineer.
Earlier that year, a young American producer heard we were back working
on new material, and asked his manager to send our office a CD of some of the
music he had worked on. We always like to have a coproducer, and many times
we?re looking for somebody we haven?t worked with before, for fresh input and
new directions. We listened to that CD one afternoon while we sat around the
control room of the Toronto studio, reviewing a selection of production work by
several candidates. Right away we were drawn to the work of that young
American, Nick Raskulinecz, and when we met him soon after, we were drawn to
him even more.
At thirty-six, Nick was a little younger than us (his mother was a little
younger than us!), but he was also experienced enough, as both musician and
producer, to have strong opinions and creative ideas. The three of us quickly
agreed to hire him, and once we started work again in September, and had
sketched out a few more songs, Nick joined us to review our work so far. He was
a powerhouse of enthusiasm, and offered suggestions for the arrangements (one
of his frequent lines, ?I?d be curious to hear . . .?), helping us to shape the songs
more effectively. He also encouraged and elevated our individual performances,
challenging us to keep reaching higher (another typical line, ?Hey, I wouldn?t ask
if I didn?t know you could do it!?).
Nick is a master ?air musician,? equally virtuosic on all instruments (some
of them for real, too; he had started as a drummer, then played both guitar and
bass in bands, until he gravitated to the production side). While suggesting an idea
for a drum part to me, Nick would use a combination of physical and vocal
emulation, arms flailing to something like, ?Bloppida-bloppida-batu-batuwhirrrrr-
?Booujze? was Nick?s vocalization of a bass drum and cymbal crash at the
end of that incredible air-drumming fill, and we heard it often. One day I walked
into the control room to see Geddy behind the computer screen, moving the
sections of a song around on the digital recording. He looked up at me, then nodded
toward Nick, ?Booujze here wants us to try changing the chorus in ?Spindrift.??
Everybody laughed, and from then on, he was Booujze. (The proper spelling
determined after considerable discussion.)
By October we had eleven songs completed in rough form, and some
dominant lyrical themes were evident. Thoughts on spirituality and faith were
woven into several songs: ?Whirlwind life of faith and betrayal,? as hinted in ?Far
Cry,? and further expressed in ?Armor and Sword,? ?The Way the Wind Blows,?
Other lyrical themes include a twist on the time-honored ?relationship songs,?
framed along the lines of Robert Frost?s epitaph, ?I Had a Lover?s Quarrel With
the World.? In ?Spindrift? and ?Good News First,? for example, the lyrics are
deliberately presented in the context of a ?lover?s quarrel.? The addressee, though,
is not a ?significant other,? but a significant proportion of the whole, wide
world?as expressed in ?The Way the Wind Blows,? all those people ?Who don?t
seem to see things the way you do.?
The same ?lover?s quarrel? device colors the album?s final statement, ?We
Hold On.? (With a nod to T.S. Eliot for ?measured out in coffee breaks.?) If many
of the other lyrics illuminate the struggles we all have to face, in love and in life,
this one shows how we deal with it: We hold on.
Geddy adapted ?Workin? Them Angels? from the verses that open my book
Traveling Music, which closed that circle nicely. In a similar loop, the title for
?The Larger Bowl? came from a bicycle trip in West Africa, as described in
The Masked Rider, when a song with that title wafted through a feverish,
hallucinatory ?dysentery dream.? Waking in a sweaty tangle of twisted sheets,
I only remembered the title, but I knew I had to write that song. Make a dream
come true, as it were.
Back in the early ?90s, I gave that title to some words partly inspired by the
dream?s location, Africa, about life?s unequal ?fortunes and fates.? The front of
my rhyming dictionary had an index of traditional verse patterns, and I tried
writing in some of them?as an exercise, like solving a crossword puzzle. Among
sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, I particularly liked a Malay form called the
pantoum, and wrote several lyrics using that scheme, including ?The Larger
Bowl.? However, I never even submitted them to my bandmates until this
album?fifteen years later.
It must have been the right time, because, to my delight, Alex and Geddy
responded to the challenge of ?The Larger Bowl,? and its unusual construction.
Musically, the song seemed to benefit from stylistic influences we discovered, or
recovered, during our Feedback project, when we recorded a number of cover
tunes from our earliest influences. That spirit of youthful enthusiasm, and the
spirit of the ?60s, is alive in several of these songs, from the blues sections in ?The
Way the Wind Blows? to the ?feedback solo? in ?Far Cry,? and the simple rhythm
section backing for the melodic guitar solo in ?The Larger Bowl.?
And speaking of the all-important rhythm section, I had been working hard
on my drum parts, too. While Alex and Geddy wrote and arranged in the control
room, I could play my drums in the recording room without disturbing them.
Several times a day I took a break from lyric writing and went in to play along
with CDs of their song sketches, and two nights a week Alex stayed late to be my
?producer,? so I could record my ideas and see how they worked.
As a drummer, it has become apparent to me that I am more of a
?composer? than an ?improviser,? yet I still face every new song by imagining
everything that might possibly fit. Determined not to repeat myself if I can avoid
it, I search for new approaches to parts, and different kinds of fills. In that spirit,
I played through all of the songs many times while I experimented, and that
helped to ?groom? my performances, make them smoother and more finely
In November we began the final recording at Allaire Studios, a rambling
residential studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In the summer of 2005,
I had filmed an instructional DVD, Anatomy of a Drum Solo, at Allaire, and had
loved both the recording facilities (a large room of wood and stone, the estate?s
former Great Hall, sounded terrific for drums) and the friendly, comfortable
atmosphere of the place. The view from the studio windows looked down over a
forested valley and far across to receding round peaks?and the food was good!
After a little scientific mic-placing and knob-twiddling, and some impromptu
jam sessions, we got down to work. After more than thirty years of recording
together, the three of us felt we achieved our best results by concentrating on one
performance at a time. Even if we were playing alone to a recorded guide track,
it was still us, and we ?meshed? automatically. Still, we remained open to other
methods, and at Booujze?s direction, sometimes I recorded the drum track to the
guide by myself; sometimes Geddy and I played together; and sometimes
Booujze wanted all three of us out there. Once he was satisfied that we were
getting the most from each part of every song, we concentrated on getting the best
drum performances. Then Geddy could take a similarly focused approach to
rerecording his bass parts to them.
We had only planned to stay at Allaire for two weeks to get those basic tracks
done, then move back to Toronto to overdub final guitars and vocals. However,
everybody found the atmosphere at Allaire so comfortable, and so conducive to
getting good work done, that we ended up staying for six weeks, and recording
everything there?often all at once. Allaire was equipped with two complete
studios in different parts of the compound, and thus Rich and Alex were recording
guitars in one room, while Booujze and Geddy worked on vocals in the other.
In a single, inspired performance, Alex recorded his eclectic and poignant
solo guitar piece, ?Hope,? which also has qualities of spirituality, and raw
sophistication. He chose the title from the line in ?Faithless,? ?I still cling to
hope,? and like that song, ?Hope? is a kind of secular prayer.
Toward the end of the sessions, Geddy was playing with a fretless bass
between vocal takes, just riffing aimlessly, and Booujze was getting excited. He
started recording some of those figures over the vocal mic, and fired us up with
the idea of putting them together to create a short, quirky instrumental. This
inspired the thirteenth track, for luck, ?Malignant Narcissism? (an apt title for an
instrumental with bass and drum solos, it came from Team America: World
Police). For everyday use, that mouthful was soon abbreviated to ?MalNar? (cue
robot voice, ?We are from the planet Malnar?). I had left a little four-piece
drumset in the studio for Booujze to play around on, and I ended up recording
?Malignant Narcissism? on that. Just for fun.
Nearing the end of December, that spirit of fun, inspiration, perspiration,
spontaneity, efficiency, and isolation (little to do but work) had sped the recording
along, and we were done months ahead of our best-case scenario. More
importantly, we enjoyed our time working together more than we have in years
(maybe ever), thanks to the great conditions at Allaire and our ?dream team? of
Rich and Booujze. As I said to them on the day the drum tracks were finished, ?I
have never enjoyed the recording process so much, nor felt so satisfied by the
results.? That?s saying something, believe me, after nearly thirty-three years and
I don?t know how many recordings.
In January 2007, we started the mixing at Ocean Way in Hollywood,
California. That made quite a change from the rustic surroundings of Allaire, but
it was pleasant for me. All through the six years I had been living in Los Angeles,
I had commuted to Toronto for rehearsing, writing, and recording, so it was nice
to have Alex and Geddy come to me for a change.
And they didn?t seem to mind escaping January in Toronto for Southern
California. One day Geddy reported that Toronto was exactly a hundred degrees
colder?a balmy 80 degrees in Los Angeles, and a 20-below wind chill in
Toronto. While waiting for Rich (now ?Arch,? for his spot-on imitations of Archie
Bunker) and Booujze to put together a mix for our approval, there was plenty of
time for, say, tennis and golf.
By then we had settled on the album title, Snakes and Arrows, which came
about when I was working on the lyrics for ?Armor and Sword.? In turn, that title
metaphor had been developed for my book, Roadshow, to describe the ?good?
kind of faith as being armor, while the ?bad? kind of faith is a sword.
While I was working on those lyrics for ?Armor and Sword,? the
battlefield imagery reminded me of a line, ?Where ignorant armies clash by
night,? from a poem I half-remembered. It turned out to be Matthew Arnold?s
magnificent ?Dover Beach,? and I was so excited by its synchronicity with my
own preoccupations in many of these songs that I had to put in one line from the
poem, as a tribute, ?Confused alarms of struggle and flight.?
I was also thinking, like Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, about how
children are usually imprinted with a particular faith, along with their other early
blessings and scars. People who actively choose their faith are vanishingly few;
most simply receive it, with their mother?s milk, language, and customs. Thinking
also of people being shaped by early abuse of one kind or another, I felt a
connection with friends who had adopted rescue dogs as puppies, and given them
unlimited love, care, and security. If those puppies had been ?damaged? by their
earlier treatment?made nervous, timid, or worse?they would always remain
that way, no matter how smooth the rest of their life might be. It seemed the same
To express that notion, I came up with, ?The snakes and arrows a child is
heir to/ Are enough to leave a thousand cuts.? I thought I was only combining
Hamlet?s ?slings and arrows? with the childhood game ?Snakes and Ladders,? to
make something less clich?d. And indeed, when we were discussing Snakes and
Arrows as a possible album title, Geddy remarked, ?I like it because it sounds
familiar, but isn?t.?
One thing I have always done when we decide on a title is check to see if
it?s been used already. In the old millennium, that would involve a visit to the
local record store and a flip through their master list, the Phonolog. These days,
of course, it?s a perfect job for a search engine.
To my surprise, ?snakes and arrows? called up several links to something
called ?Leela, The Game of Self Knowledge,? or, incredibly, ?The Game of
Snakes and Arrows.? Long story short, I followed that trail with growing
enthusiasm, and learned that Leela (Hindi for ?the game?) was at least 2,000 years
old, and had been created by Buddhist saints and sages as a game of karma?like
many games, a metaphor for life. (And an accidental but deep connection with the
tarot cards we used on Vapor Trails, or the dice on Roll the Bones?both ancient
games, and metaphors for life.)
The Leela player rolls a single die, said to be affected by his or her karma,
and moves around the board. Each square on the grid represents a stage of
consciousness or existence, and the player is raised to higher levels by arrows, and
brought low by snakes. The children?s game ?Snakes and Ladders? (sometimes
?Chutes and Ladders?) was adapted from Leela by the British during the 19th
century Colonial period. After that, the original game almost disappeared?
apparently only two gameboards existed in India when scholar Harish Johari
revived the game and brought it to America in the 1970s. The Sanskrit chants that
once accompanied each of the squares were lost, but a cosmos of spirituality
(there?s that word again) survived.
When I told Alex and Geddy about the Leela connection, and showed them
the gameboard painted by Harish Johari, they were as excited by all that
serendipity as I was, and we agreed to use his painting for the cover. Hugh Syme
and I began our always enjoyable collaboration of creating the other elements for
the packaging ? the presentation ? and images for each of the songs.
So, from the first demo to the final cover, that?s the story of Snakes and
Arrows. Or a few of them, anyway. If every song is a story, every song has many
stories, too. The elaborate instrumental, ?The Main Monkey Business,? was
certainly the most painstaking song of all to write, arrange, and record (it took me
three days just to learn it). Its title comes from a conversation Geddy had with his
Polish mother. Talking about a cousin of theirs, she said, ?I have a feeling he?s up
to some monkey business.?
Geddy laughed, saying, ?What kind of monkey business??
?You know,? she said, with Old World wisdom, ?The main monkey business.?
Everybody knows about that.
And so it can be said that Snakes and Arrows offers some monkey business,
some spirituality, some lover?s quarrels with the world, some raw sophistication,
some dysentery dreams, some malignant narcissism, the spirit of the ?60s, and the
Tao of Booujze. It combines everything we know about making music with
everything we love about making music.
Naturally, we hope listeners will feel that spirit?all those spirits?and have
a rewarding musical experience, not just once, but again and again.
With a prize every time.
Joined: 13 Nov 2003
Location: New York
|Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 9:47 am Post subject:
Freeze this moment a little bit longer...
Joined: 13 Nov 2003
Location: Grangemouth, Scotland
|Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2007 6:24 am Post subject:
|cheers for that owlie
|Big Blue Owl
Joined: 17 Aug 2006
Location: Somewhere between the darkness and the light
|Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2007 6:33 am Post subject:
It's one of the coolest, most fascinating things I've read in weeks.
Love to hear the adventures of our boys! Especially when told by the professor.
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