Percussion, photography cross paths in Rhythm & Light
a.k.a. Mrs. Neil Peart
Rush’s 2001 Vapor Trails CD and subsequent world tour were not only milestones in the Canadian power trio’s long career, they marked a new chapter, personally and professionally, in legendary drummer Neil Peart’s life. The percussionist’s wife, L.A. photographer Carrie Nuttall, has captured the essence of Peart the musician and perhaps the essence of Peart the man in Rhythm & Light, a new book of photos of the early Vapor Trails sessions. Drummer-at-heart Steve Stav talks to Nuttall about her experiences photographing a man who could be Canada’s Prime Minister, if he ever wanted the job.
Seated behind an often massive array of drums, Rush’s percussionist and lyricist for the past 30 years views his kit as the best of drummers do — as a miniature, self-contained orchestra, with each skin and cymbal offering countless tonal possibilities.
This attitude towards rhythm composition, combined with a fierce drive and stamina that rivals that of Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones in their primes, has earned Neil Peart the respect of drummers and music fans around the world. Throw in Peart’s storied intellect (dubbed “the Professor” by his fans, the 2112 co-creator is also the author of several books), his penchant for BMW motorcycles and a passion for global-spanning adventure, and you have a seemingly semi-superhuman, modern “Renaissance man” who appears to be unaffected by the ravages of time.
In 1998, however, his fans discovered that Peart is a mere mortal, after all. Devastated by the loss of his 19-year-old daughter in a car crash and of his wife to cancer 11 months later, Peart went into a semi-seclusion (which included a year-long motorcycle trip) that could have easily become permanent.
Rush’s future as a working band remained very uncertain until news of recording a new album, Vapor Trails, reached their fans in the waning months of 2000.
The drummer’s January 2001 re-entry into Rush’s Toronto studio not only marked a new chapter in the group’s career; it was also a turning point for Peart as an individual. He had been away from drumming, in a professional sense, for several years; additionally, Peart was newly remarried, to L.A.-based commercial photographer Carrie Nuttall (the pair had met through a mutual friend in 1999, they were wed a year later).
Motivated by a desire to span the geographical gap between them as well as by Nuttall’s idea to chronicle Peart’s re-emergence in black-and-white film, the percussionist began formulating drum tracks for the album while the shutterbug became a fly on the studio wall. The result is rare, intimate glimpses into Peart’s very private world of motion and sound, away from the stages and cheering crowds culminated in a bound collection, Rhythm & Light, which was recently released by Rounder Books (a newly formed division of Rounder Records).
Besides a series of beautifully presented photos, the book features individual prefaces by Peart and Nuttall, as well as brief commentaries by Peart’s drum mentor, Freddie Gruber.
Last week, I spoke to Nuttall about the experience, which proved not only to be a journey of discovery for Peart, but for her, as well.
You must have been familiar with Rush at the time you met Neil.
I knew what Rush was, but honestly didn’t know the individual band member’s names. I knew the hits back in high school, but I wasn’t a fan.
Rush has some of the most loyal fans in the world…
Yes, that’s true!
But your husband has a sort of sub-sect all his own. For a lot of people, he’s a kind of mystery figure, a living legend. When did you first become aware of Neil’s sort of unique place in rock ‘n’ roll?
After we got together, from all the comments from people around me. He’s a very private person, and probably less comfortable with the limelight than the other two. That probably contributes to the image that he has.
Spending as much time as I have around drummers, I’ve heard all kinds of stories and myths about Neil — extreme exercise regimens, meditation, strange diets…
[Laughing] I’ve heard some pretty crazy ones myself.
So this book project must have been quite an education not only in photography, but in what your husband does for a living.
Yeah, I’ve been working in photography for quite a while, but this is the first project where I photographed the same person over and over again in the same setting. That was a great experience for me, because every time I felt that I exhausted the subject matter, I would wait and observe and find something unique and new to capture.
And his world, of course, was completely new to me. Rush had been on hiatus, and I hadn’t seen him work before we were married — it was something to see him in his element.
You managed to capture Neil’s intensity very well – were you surprised by his work ethic?
Yes! [laughs] He’s obviously an intense, focused, driven person while he’s working, and he holds extremely high standards for himself and that’s why he’s as successful as he is. So it was very, very interesting to observe him; so many people would tell me, “Your husband is so lucky,” or “Your husband is so talented.” I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Neil does; of course he’s talented, but it’s not just a matter of luck.
Speaking of luck, you seem to have had the best of “photographer’s luck” — being at the right place at the right time. This book is sort of a time capsule of a very special period for him; I think it really turned out well.
Thank you. It was something that I had to ease into, because Neil is not used to having someone around while he’s working. I got to learn about him, and by seeing me work, he learned a bit about me as well.
I read that Neil was receptive to the idea…
Not at first! [laughing] He was not receptive at first!
So I understand… But with the two of you newly married certainly, this could have turned out badly. It seems a little risky.
Absolutely! Part of any photographer’s role is to make the subject comfortable, and make it a pleasant experience. There’s a lot of psychology involved in photography; as you probably saw, I was unobtrusive enough for him to be able to go about his business of making a record.
Apart from his famous intensity, what did you learn about Neil and the band during this project?
In terms of his relationship with Alex and Geddy, it was fascinating to observe that all three of them are masters in their own fields; they work so well together, it’s really a team effort. One might assume that there were a lot of egos clashing, but there wasn’t any of that. I think they value each other’s opinions very highly, and because of that, the egos were left behind. Obviously, it’s why they’ve been together so long.
Artists, musicians of that stature often have the reputations of having giant egos, being difficult and all that and that isn’t the case here.
I don’t think you can be Canadian and have that big of an ego — it’s not in their nature.
That’s true! [laughs] Good point.
I notice you used very minimal lighting.
Yes, I’m sure you’re familiar with the recording process — anything in the room can affect the sound. So, I couldn’t bring in my big lights; actually, I only used two small hot lights.
The book seems to have this theme of contrasting motion and still objects, which is not an easy task. Is this something you intended to do?
Yes, it was. You’re correct, it wasn’t easy as you know, Neil moves very quickly when he works — it’s not like I could say, “Hold that pose!” It was very challenging, and I did some experimenting with shutter speeds and other things. I did learn a lot from the process. As you seem to have picked up on, I was really trying to capture the emotion of the moment, and the complexity of what was going on. I think the combination of the motion and the still objects helps with that.
One of my favorites is ‘Reflection,’ where Neil seems to be lost in thought in the background, with the cymbal with the stick dust on it in the foreground.
Thanks, it’s one of my favorites, as well.
What’s the story behind ‘Weary Soles’ — a picture of a shoe?
Neil and his drum teacher, Freddie Gruber, they go back about 10 or 15 years; Neil kind of relearned his entire drumming technique. Well, Freddie — who is a complete character, he’s almost 80 years old — his theory is to have all his students wear dance shoes while they drum, because their feet are dancing on the pedals. So that’s one of Neil’s Capezio jazz dance shoes that he wears every time he plays.
Is the first picture of Neil holding his sticks, with the quote from Gruber about being ‘correct,’ is he talking about Neil adopting a traditional grip, as opposed to a match grip?
Exactly. Freddie is so into creativity, he doesn’t like to use the words ‘correct’ or ‘not correct’ , whatever works, works. He’s saying here, ‘In the traditional sense, this is correct.’
You must have taken hundreds of photos. How did you pare them down for the book? Did Neil have much say in the matter?
With all the motion, it was hard to know what would work and what wouldn’t — this was different than shooting portraits, where you know what you have. I didn’t know what I had until I got into the darkroom and saw the proof sheets. I spent weeks in the darkroom editing; it was difficult to make the decisions. There were a lot of ones I liked.
This was a gallery exhibit in L.A. a couple of years ago, prior to this becoming a book; of course, you have a finite number of images to use for that kind of project, and the order was important for me. I wanted them to tell a story.
Neil did have some input, not necessarily on the order, but I did ask his opinion on things.
What were Alex’ and Geddy’s reactions to the photos?
Well, Geddy’s a fine-art, black-and-white photography collector, and he purchased a few of the images for his collection which pleased me very much. Both Geddy and Alex were very supportive of the project, which was very nice.
I imagine that the fans’ response to the book has been very positive.
I’ve gotten some nice letters, and emails to my website; the response has been great. The book has been selling so well, we’re starting to work on a second edition, as well as a second printing of the first one. I’ve been really busy with the printers and so on, and I’m starting work on a different book project.
What are Neil and the band up to these days?
Neil is writing a new book.
Another travel-memoir book?
I would say so, a similar theme to the other books. He’s very disciplined, he writes every day. The band has no definite plans right now.
Rhythm & Light‘s last picture is a concert photo taken from the stage, behind Neil. You thrust yourself into this sort of alien environment of studio recording, and now you get to see the culmination of their efforts — the um, phenomenon. I guess that’s the best word for it…
That’s a good word…
The phenomenon that is a Rush tour. What were your thoughts when you first saw them on stage?
It was pretty exciting [laughs]. I had been told by so many people how amazing they are in concert, and it’s something you can’t really understand until you see it for yourself. They’re such great musicians… It was also very interesting — as a photographer, I’m a people watcher, and I really enjoyed being in the audience and watching the fans, as well.
I’ve seen a lot of Rush concerts by now, and Neil’s drum solos never cease to amaze me.
You must have really gotten a crash course in the world of drumming, it’s kind of a masochistic cult, plus a realization that your husband occupies a higher plane of musicianship than most performers, all in a pretty brief span of time.
[Chuckling] Seeing Neil’s blisters and calluses, I’d have to agree with you on the first part! In the sense of him being in a different realm, I would also have agree — not that I’m biased.
The book’s cover photo pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?
Yes, I think so.
Prompted by brisk sales of Rhythm & Light, Nuttall is currently busy coordinating a second pressing, as well as a second edition of photos of Peart’s Vapor Trails sessions.