For over a decade, the Canadian trio Triumph was the darling of its home country, eventually crossing over to break into the American music charts with “Lay It On The Line,” “Never Surrender” and “Somebody’s Out There.” But by 1988, vocalist/guitar player Rik Emmett was feeling the need to leave the band and do something fresh. Venturing out on his own, his first album, Absolutely
, was a nice success, spawning the emotional ballad “When A Heart Breaks.”
In 2012, Emmett found his solo career bumping into his past band once again with several releases: Then Again … Acoustic Selections From The Triumph Catalog brought some oldies but goodies back to life in a refreshing new way by Emmett and his touring and recording partner Dave Dunlop, while the DVD/CD set Triumph: Live At Sweden Rock Festival, originally recorded in 2008 but only now seeing the light of day, showcases the band’s undeniable energy, musicianship and lyrics.
I was able to catch up with Emmett last month while he was spending a cold day inside at his home near Toronto. Earlier that day, I had met some musicians hanging out by the music magazines at my local bookstore and after talking a while, found out they were Triumph fans. Mentioning this to Emmett, he seemed a little surprised but honestly humbled that the band is still influential to musicians today.
Does it surprise you that people still see your music as an inspiration?
It’s always lovely to hear that. I mean, I guess because of the fact that Triumph had been a band that was trying to live up to it’s own name a lot of the time and we had a lot of songs that were sort of inspirational and motivational in nature. And then just my own natural inclination, I ended up being a writer for Guitar Player
magazine for many years. I mean, I’m a teacher now, I teach a college course on music business and songwriting, so I guess that sort of natural kind of pedantic nature came out in a way that the material had those kinds of qualities. But it’s nice to know that it’s had a positive impact on people’s lives for sure.
But, you know, this is the funny thing about being an artist. When you ask me does it surprise me, there’s a part of me where I think I’m enough of a pragmatist and a realist that I look at the world and go, well, very little surprises me because the world is a place where crazy things happen and wonderful things happen and horrible things happen and somehow you have to take it all in stride and carry on. So that’s being human, that’s being, I think in some ways, an artistic kind of thing. Then the other part of it is the whole thing of ego and humility. As an artist you have to have a certain amount of ego to do what you do. You have to say, well, I think what I do is important. I think my opinion matters (laughs). I think other people should hear the things I have to say and listen to the music that I make because I think it’s worthy. So there is a certain amount of ego involved in that. By the same token, I’ve always had a fair measure of humility in the sense that everything about having a career surprises me (laughs). So as the final analysis when you ask me the question and I go, yes, I find it very surprising that anybody actually thinks that anything I say or do has any value at all, I’m grateful for it, tremendously grateful for it. I think that’s probably true of most artists, that they kind of have to cope with that constant thing between their ego and their humility and how surprising and crazy the world is and how, well, you kind of get to the point where you’re a little jaded and cynical and you kind of go, yeah, nothing surprises me now.Why was it important for you to leave Triumph when you did and go out on your own?
Well, I think the band, for me, had run it’s course and I was feeling that there wasn’t much I could do within the sort of personal and political constraints that existed within the band. And I think probably I had gotten to the point where I had become tired of the whole idea of record companies looking over my shoulder, other band members second guessing things; just the whole thing of art by democracy wasn’t really working for me anymore. I really wanted to sort of become my own little benign dictator, you know.Do you ever get tired of talking about Triumph, when you have such a fertile solo career going on?
I don’t tire of it. I mean, I understand that it had a great deal of commercial success, more than anything I have done since, so it has this impact. When I go out and play gigs now, most of the people in the audience don’t come because they’re compelled by this vast body of work that I’ve done since I left Triumph (laughs). They’re compelled by the fact that I’m the guy that used to be the guy who played those songs that were the soundtrack of their life.
I’m very realistic and practical. I look at the music business since the dawn of the music business and I see that there is a time in people’s lives from the time they are about nine or ten and they start to become aware of music and by the time they are twelve or thirteen, they are really into it. Then by the time they are sixteen or seventeen, they’ve become deep fans of something, some style, some records, some artists. Then by and large, they carry those things through with them the rest of their life. And by the time they reach the age of forty-five/fifty/sixty, they don’t really want to listen to the music that is happening now. That’s the music for kids. What they want to do is listen to the music that they fell in love with back in a certain time. So it must be something to do with human nature and the way our brains evolve and the way we’re wired. But we start to become creatures of habit and there’re things that we love.
The other thing about the whole dynamic of Triumph verses my own career, when I play old songs, I know that these are the soundtrack to people’s lives and that they want that because it validates their own lives. It’s an ego kind of thing for them. They kind of go, look, it was important, the way I felt when I was fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, and the prom that I went to and the things that I did and the first dance I had with my wife at my wedding and blah-blah-blah. All of these kinds of things, that’s their lives and they want their own lives validated. Plus they want to be able to climb in the time machine and go back. They want to go back to that moment where they didn’t have the burdens and concerns of being adults. Their future was still shiny and bright in front of them.
Every human being, I think, that’s part of what music does for them. That it can transport them and validate them. So I don’t mind. I think I’m lucky that I get to be the conductor on that train (laughs). I don’t bite the hand that feeds me and I certainly don’t want to tick off the people that are still fans of mine. I think part of it is, if I service that, if I say to them, hey, I’ll definitely meet you half way. I’ll give you what you want and then, do you mind if I play something of my own, something new and something different? And then they go, “No, sure, absolutely. We can understand that you want to be an artist and that you have things you want to try and do and say. So yeah, we’ll give you our undivided attention for three and a half minutes (laughs) but then you’ve got to give back to us again what we want.” So it’s a give and take thing and that’s what life is like.Your first solo album did really well. Did that help the transition because it did indeed do so well? Did it knock out the nerves or any doubts you may have had that it was the right decision to leave Triumph?
Oh, I think it did. I think part of it too is that we could go three or four albums into the process where I was signed to a little indie label that was distributed by the same large company that had distributed Triumph and there was still pressure that was like, Oh Rik, you can’t just keep making soft ballads and things; that I need some hard rocking material. There was still that kind of stuff that was going on. But I think part of it too was just that everything was changing. We’re talking 1988, radio was certainly going through a huge change and digital technology was really starting to make itself, you know, the whole shift from vinyl records to compact discs was the beginning of something. Then of course later on along came mp3s and that really was how the business was structured. So it wasn’t just a personal thing. There was stuff going on outside of me and the industry and culture and the way things were perceived and stuff. And of course as all of this is going on, I’m not getting any younger. And there is a thing about the large numbers of things that drive the music industry. They are often youth-oriented stuff. They are driven by demographics that I was growing too old for.
I can remember when we were shopping a record deal in that time frame, and I’m talking 1989/1990, and I was just around forty, and people were saying, “You’re too old, Man. Sorry.” (laughs) They didn’t want to sign me at forty and here I am going to turn sixty this year. Music has never changed for me in the sense of wanting to make it and pursue it and chase it. To me, music has always been kind of an infinite pursuit that, I mean, I’ll chase it but you’ll never really catch it. It’s always going to stay out ahead of you. That’s part of the bargain. But in terms of a career and the selling of records, I don’t concern myself too much with it because it’s inevitable that as you get older, the business is going to fall away from you, like you can’t keep sustaining the same kinds of numbers. There are, obviously, a few aberrations you could look at and you could say, well, what about Paul McCartney or what about Tony Bennett? But generally speaking, for most people that’s not the way the market works.One of the songs from your solo career, “Let Me Be The One,” I think it is one of the prettiest songs I have ever heard.
Well, thank you. At the time, when I was writing it, I had been married eighteen years - and my wife and I are going to have our thirty-seventh anniversary this year - so I started writing this song and I was thinking about just the whole idea of being together for a long time and the commitment that one makes to exclusivity. You know, that’s part of the bargain of fidelity, what marriages are kind of based on. So that was the theme I was writing to. Then my wife comes to me and says, “Hey, a friend of mine is getting married and she really wants you to sing at the wedding.” And I said, “Oh, man, I don’t do weddings, you know.” (laughs) “And I don’t want to sing standard repertoire like, if I have to sing ‘Ave Maria’ or something like that, the jig will be up. I have to sing my own stuff.” And my wife was saying, “You have to do this. You have to sing at this wedding.” So I went, “Oh jeez (laughs) Well, the song I’m working on if I change a lyric here or there and I rewrite it, I could make it be for somebody looking forward to that exclusive life together, the long journey.” And that’s what I did. I sort of messed around with it and put it together and I played it at the wedding and a little old lady came up to me and she said, “You’re quite good at this. You should consider singing professionally.” (laughs) She had no idea who I was. So that was kind of fun and I did it at my brother’s wedding and I’ve done it at a few weddings since.
You know, I realize it’s kind of a sappy ballad and it’s not like it’s anything progressive in it’s nature but I just think it’s an honest song. I wrote it from an honest place. If people were to say to me, “Who are the musicians you really admire in your life?” One of them that I would pick would certainly be Paul McCartney and Paul McCartney was never shy about writing a silly love song or writing just a really heartfelt ballad. That was always an important thing to him. So I realized there were some people in the music industry that they see that thing and it makes them want to gag (laughs) but I go, well, I don’t care. If something comes to me and I’m inspired then I’m just going to chase it and it will be what it will be.A couple of years ago you did an album of covers called ReCOVERy Room 9. I love how you did the John Hiatt song, “Have A Little Faith In Me,” but I found it interesting that you would take something like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” and tackle it because that is such an iconic song.
I think part of the challenge for all of that was we were going to try to do songs that would be unexpected, like “Have A Little Faith In Me;” the John Hiatt version of that song is incredibly powerful and it’s already fairly acoustic. It’s just him and a piano. But to do it, Dave Dunlop and I are on guitars, and Dave, he does a lot of the singing on that first verse and stuff. That’s kind of where that whole ReCOVERy Room 9
covers thing started, was Dave and I had sort of added a few little songs into the set just to have a little change of pace here and there in our duo performances. Then we started to say, hey, what if we make a list here of things that would be unexpected, things that people would never imagine we would try, then let’s try them and see what works. I mean, there were a few that didn’t (laughs) so they didn’t make it onto the album but the ones that sort of seemed like they hung together in one way, shape or form, we kind of went, alright, these will be the ones that we do. It’s fun. It gives us a change of pace. I think we sort of get a little sick of ourselves from time to time (laughs), you know, our own songs and our own guitar pieces and our own everything. Then when you get a chance in a live gig to play a song by Don Henley or a song by Stevie Wonder, it’s kind of like you get a breath of fresh air in your set. And it gives us a chance to just go to a different place musically, which that is fun for us.
With Marco’s Secret Songbook, that’s a new direction for you. How long had you been thinking about doing this story as a concept album?
Oh that story had been through lots of evolutionary phases. There is a page on my website, www.rikemmett.com/marco/ and you can read the whole story, the whole backstory. I had thought about maybe doing an album with Steve Howe of Yes and I’d come up with a storyline and then he didn’t want to get involved so then I thought, ok, well, instead of two guitar players that are brothers, I’ll just make it one character. Then I took the story to a friend of mine and let him sort of see just the storyline and he was going, “Well, it’s not really a dramatic enough narrative arc. You need some bad things to happen to this guy.” Then when I was working on the music with Mike Shotton, and Mike had a lot to do with the development of that record, Mike would say to me, “A lot of these songs are just kind of really simple little ballad-y soft songs. You need some energy.” So then I was writing songs like “Land Of Boogie Woogie” and things like that to fit in with the cycle of the story so that there’d be moments where the energy would come up. I realize that a concept album is a throwback but those were the kinds of records that I grew up on. I loved Moody Blues and Yes and those kinds of bands so I always kind of wanted to have an album that would be something that would take you on a bit of a journey and tell a story. I don’t know if I ever originally envisioned it would have the scope that it has now, but jeez, now it seems like it’s a template for a Broadway play or something. Somebody should make a movie about it (laughs)
But at the time, I was just thinking, well, a simple little story, a bunch of singer-songwriter kind of acoustic folk songs tied together with maybe a little bit of guitar pieces here and there. I was thinking simple-simple but it didn’t really end up that way. But I’m thinking what I might do is do some remixes of the tunes that would just be kind of voice/guitar; maybe shoot some little videos that are just me and my guitar and then have that be the thing that sort of comes out in the wake of the album. At this point, I’m thinking a lot of people do listen to it. I had some fans on my site say, “Well, I never listen to the narration anymore. I listened to it once or twice but now I just skip it and all I want to listen to is the songs cause that’s really all that I care about.”
I don’t know if you ever read the book by Jeff Emerick but he was the engineer who worked with The Beatles and his book is called Here, There And Everywhere
. I was just reading where he was saying how ever since he was a little boy that when he listened to songs he never really listened to lyrics. All he cared about was just listening to the music. So I think different people listen to music in different ways and in truth when you make a concept album and you’ve got a story and you’ve got a narrator and you’ve got underscore underneath the narrator and all this dramatic emotional stuff that is going on, I think a lot of people just go, “Oh come on, Rik, just play a tune will you.”Speaking of your website, there is a great photograph of you playing with Alex Lifeson. What can you share about Alex?
He’s a lovely guy. You know, he’s a sweetheart and originally upon meeting Alex and spending time with him, you kind of get the impression that he’s almost even a little shy and a little bit reserved but then the more you get to know him the more you realize he’s very much like a renaissance man, like he has a tremendous artistic ability. I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that he can oil paint and his paintings are really good. And of course he is a connoisseur of wine and he can fly planes. I mean, the guy is unbelievable. He’s got all these renaissance man qualities so that if you sit down and you start to get in a conversation with him that has any depth you start to realize he can hold his own in any intellectual kind of thing. You know, that’s more impressive than ever because of course everybody just thinks of him as this guitar player guy, gritting his teeth and playing all these heavy duty chords and stuff in Rush.
But yeah, he’s a lovely guy and a great player. He really does have a very wide spirit about the making of music and the making of art. Obviously, when you’re in a band like Rush, you’re going to have a role and there are going to be certain things that over the years people come to expect: this is what Rush is and this is what Rush does. And their fans kind of go, “Hey, hey, don’t get too far out of the mold here. We don’t want you to step too far outside.” But Alex has as many unexpected and unknown kinds of qualities about him as any other progressive musician/guitar player might. It’s just they don’t necessarily always show up in the Rush thing. Rush is driven a lot by the bass and drums, by the rhythm section, and then the fact that it’s probably one of the most interesting and busy rhythm sections on the planet Earth (laughs). So that sort of gives Alex a certain role that he has to kind of play right there. I think another thing too is there was a time when they did solo albums. Alex did a solo record and Geddy did one and I think they kind of realized, yeah, you know if I’m going to make records, the best records I can make are with those other guys; I don’t necessarily want to make them on my own. So he didn’t really break free of the mold. Like when I left Triumph, I was leaving. The mold, for me, was going to break. There was no question about it. But I think in his case, he’s in a band where he’s very, very comfortable in that mold and it’s been a very, very successful one. So I think that alters things a little bit.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I was pretty much the golden boy. I was the second of three boys and I was the one that was kind of talented from early on. The kindergarten teacher would say, “Oh, Mrs Emmett, your son, his paintings are extraordinary and his drawings. And wow, he wrote a story in class today and it was very interesting” and blah-blah-blah. When I was in grade, I think five, I was already singing in the citywide choir. I ran in the school field day and I won the 50 yard dash or whatever it was, and then it was like, “Oh, he should play on the baseball team and he should be on the soccer team.” So I started playing sports from when I was about seven or eight years old. And my grades were really good in school, all the way to about grade nine when I went into high school and I really started to get interested in girls. That was when the shit hit the fan (laughs) and everything else went to hell. And of course I was playing more and more guitar all the time so my focus in high school was becoming more about that. I still liked playing sports and I loved music, I was still playing in bands and stuff. I was in the high school orchestra and played violin for six years – but I wasn’t very good at violin, I liked guitar (laughs).
I had a relatively happy childhood. I got along with my parents when I was little. When I started to be a teenager, and we’re talking 1966/1967/1968 through that period, when I wanted to start growing my hair and acting like The Beatles and my parents were horrified. A big sort of scism occurred between my mother and I cause my mother was very religious and we sang in the church choir together and stuff. Then after my grandparents started passing away I started thinking about God and religion and the afterlife and everything and I decided that I wasn’t really going to be religious. I wasn’t going to go to church anymore and I had a big falling out with my mom on that level. So it wasn’t idyllic, it wasn’t perfect, but my life generally was a pretty good one and my health was good. We didn’t have much money, we were kind of lower middle class, but there was always enough. When I was sort of graduating high school, my parents didn’t have enough money to be able to send any of the boys to college. If we were going to go we were going to have to borrow our own money or student loans or work and save the money. And I didn’t want to do any of that, I wanted to play in a band (laughs) And that’s what I did.
What is your first memory of music?
Well, there was always music around the house. As I said, my mom sang in the choir at church and she liked to sing around the house when she did housework. We had a record player and I remember Tony Bennett records, my mom loved Tony Bennett. We had some old orchestra records, some classical music. My earliest memory would be probably sitting in a pew in church and the organ playing and feeling the bass rumbling up my butt (laughs) and hearing the choir singing in this glorious harmony and me thinking, oh, this is what God is (laughs) God is this stuff. And I haven’t really changed much. I’m kind of still a kid in awe at what music can be and what it can do. And I would say that is probably my earliest memories.
When did you discover rock & roll?
A little bit before The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, but right around then, just like almost everybody in my generation. I wasn’t the same age as that. I was a little younger so if that was 1964, I was probably in grade five maybe. And that was like this watershed kind of event. The kid across the street had one of those little Seabreeze record players that played 45s and he’d buy The Beatles 45s and we would take tennis rackets over to his garage and pretend to be The Beatles strumming on tennis rackets. Then I got a guitar from my grandfather and started to learn how to pick my way around on it, got some lessons and yeah, I was launched.
What happened to your first guitar?
I still have it. It doesn’t have any strings on it anymore and it got cracked. Originally, it had palm trees and a hula girl that was stenciled on the front. It was a plywood catalog model. When I was going to summer camp, maybe around 1966 or somewhere around there, I went, oh my God, I’ll be too embarrassed, so I sanded the face of the guitar down and painted it black and I took that guitar. I still have it, I’m looking at it now as I sit here. It’s got a couple of cracks in it and I have an autographed picture of Jerry Seinfeld that is slid into the strings that are on the guitar (laughs). I can’t play mine and it’s useless but it hangs there and it reminds me, “Hey Buddy, be humble” (laughs) But I still have my first acoustic and my first electric. I still have them. Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
Wow, first rock star that I ever met. Does it have to be a rock star that would be a name that people would recognize or can it be somebody who was a rock star in their own mind? (laughs) As you’re coming up in the business, you meet all kinds of people like that. I guess the first real rock stars that I came into contact with would have been Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. They were the guitar players in Alice Cooper’s band. I was doing a recording in a studio and they were there because they were doing some overdubs for the producer. So they were really the first name people that I ever met. Then when Triumph was recording once at Interchange Studios, Rod Stewart was doing vocals there at the same time and I met him in a washroom once.
You have a quote on your website by Steve Morse that says he is amazed at what a great all-around musician you are. Who
Well, Morse does for sure. We were in the studio once and he would play stuff and my jaw would be on the floor. And the take would end and he would say, “Oh, I’m really sorry, man, I don’t know why, I don’t seem to have it together today. I can’t seem to play.” And I would say, “Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? That’s unbelievably great.” (laughs) He was very modest but he is amazing. I think Pat Metheny is one of the greatest guitarists on the planet and certainly not just a guitarist but a musician and an artist and a very inspirational kind of role model type guy. I love Larry Carlton’s guitar playing and music making, I love Jeff Beck. And those are artists that I still love to listen to a lot. I mean, I tend to bounce all over the place and I listen to a lot of different kinds of things. I can be inspired by a Joe Pass record and he’s passed away but he was a beautiful musician. I’ve mentioned Tony Bennett more than once. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Paul McCartney and he’s sort of been active a lot lately and it looks like he’s the new lead singer in Nirvana (laughs) You got to look at something like that and you got to say, ok, that’s inspirational, like holy cow, that’s just great. And I’ve always kind of liked McCartney so now I have sort of an even deeper respect and admiration for him. He’s a kid at heart and I just love that.
And now you can go sing in his band while he’s doing Nirvana
(laughs) Yeah, that’d be funLet’s talk about the new Triumph DVD, Live At Sweden Rock Festival. It’s been a little while since you recorded this so why is it just coming out?
It took a long time. I mean, it’s not really my business. Gil and Mike were kind of like the guys that were handling it and coordinating it and I think it was just a question of no one felt a huge sense of urgency. They just wanted to make sure they got it right and they got Stu Young involved in it. His mixes were, I think, really good. I was very impressed with them. But I think he’d been working on Prince’s albums or whatever so they had to kind of work around Stu’s schedule and I think they had some transfer problems because of the stuff that had been shot in Sweden, I don’t know. It was just a whole bunch of technical issues that they had to deal with and held it up.
You know, that particular day, I had a migraine headache that morning. I was really sick and I was throwing up and the doctor came and gave me shots. So you can see it at the beginning of it, I seem very serious and very pale. But as the show goes on, I kind of get my sea legs and I start to think, ok, I’m not going to barf, I’m going to be fine. And then you can see where I start to smile a little bit more and enjoy myself more. But it was really sweet and there was some really heavy duty subtext to all of it. My younger brother had passed away and it had sort of been a dying wish of his that I would reunite and put all of the negativity of not being friends with Mike and Gilford for two decades and get past it. So there was a lot of that. I put some of my brother’s ashes under the stage before we went on, so it was pretty cool but it was heavy at the same time. I think the other guys were pretty nervous. Like, I still play lots of gigs and lots of shows but those guys hadn’t played for decades. They’d worked really hard in rehearsal to get back in shape and I think they were ready but of course there’s nothing like having to actually be up and now it’s real and you’re in front of an audience and you got to make it happen. But it was all good in the end. It was kind of sweet that there’s this video that’s evidence of a reunion that was in all manner of thinking and speaking, it was a reunion, a reconciliation, and it was pretty cool.
What are your plans for 2013?
Well, you know, I just hope I can keep doing more of the same. I teach one day a week at a college and that’s never going to go away and I like it and I enjoy it. I help six students a year and mentor them through recording projects in addition to teaching the classes and stuff. I go and play gigs with Dave, I make recordings with him. I’m not sure I’m going to make any studio recordings this year. I did three last year so that’s plenty (laughs). But I want to shoot videos and create. I still write all the time. I’ve got about, I don’t know, two guitar pieces and eight or nine songs in my book right now. So I could make an album if I wanted but I’m kind of thinking I’m going to use my website more to do things like release videos and downloads and that kind of stuff. People should just go to www.rikemmett.com and sort of stay tuned to what’s going on. There’s a members forum that exists there and I’m on there practically every day blogging and answering email. That keeps me in touch with the people that are my best fans and it feeds their need to kind of stay connected and my need to kind of know that I’m still wanted (laughs)