Rik Emmett, former guitarist and lead vocalist for the Canadian rock band Triumph has had several platinum and gold records throughout his career. He has also received many awards including being inducted into The Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Emmett and his collaborator Dave Dunlop are set to play an acoustic show at the Music Box Supper Club on July 29th.
Rik recently spoke with NEO Music Scene to talk about his career, his upcoming appearance in Cleveland as well as his new album (with some very special guests) that is set to be released in the fall.
Greg Drugan: Hello Rik, are you still living in Canada?
Rik Emmett: I am. I used to live in Mississauga, but my wife and I downsized a bit I’m a little further west in a city called Burlington.
GD: Very good. You last released the concept album Marco’s Secret Songbook in 2012; are you currently working on any new music?
RE: I am! But I am not at liberty to divulge too much. I have signed a contract and the record company wants to control how the social media will work and how the pr will work. The hope is that it will be released sometime in October. The hope is that I can deliver it sometime in July because it takes record companies about three months to prep world-wide releases. I can tell you that I gave my band a name: it’s called RESolution Nine. Like “Rik Emmett Solution”. It’s a rock band kinda project. That’s the next thing down the pipe!
GD: You will be playing an acoustic show in Cleveland with Dave Dunlop, how long have you been working with him?
RE: Oh god, Dave’s been in my band since the early ‘90’s. It’s been maybe 20 years. That seems ridiculous!
GD: Do you just choose to do some acoustic shows and some electric shows; how does that work?
RE: The choice isn’t necessarily with me most of the time. I have agents that have things offered to them that get offered to me. Like this weekend, I’m playing a trio show on Friday and a duo show on Saturday. I’ll play band shows if people offer them to me. It’s not like I’m playing shows every weekend. Sometimes I’ll turn down shows if the money’s no good or if it doesn’t make sense.
GD: Well I love acoustic shows and I’m looking forward to seeing you. How did you get involved in teaching at Humber College and what classes do you teach?
RE: I was on their advisory board. I was a student there, but never graduated. I was invited to participate on that level. Then the guy that was the director of the program named Brian Lillos; he took me to lunch and said “Our music business course is not very relevant. We would love it if you would come in and be our expert.” I said “Well, I’m no expert but I’ll give it a shot.” That started out as an optional course. Then it became pretty popular. It started as a three year diploma program, then when it became a four year bachelor in music program. Then it became where every student had to take it. I taught that for over a decade and I had all kinds of guys helping me out.
Then I started teaching a songwriting course which I really enjoyed. As part of the degreed program, they started this thing called directed studies where during the fourth-year every student gets to make a recording. (They make) twelve to fifteen minutes of music and go through the whole ball of wax of recording it from the beginning, mixing it and mastering it. So they get inside of the process of being inside the studio. Then each student has to function as the producer on someone else’s sessions. So they get a pretty well-rounded taste of what it’s like to be making recordings. I taught that many years and it’s a lot of work. With six students you function as A&R man, mentor, and psychiatrist. It’s a pretty intense involvement.
This year I did an ensemble program with female vocalists who are also songwriters. I taught them how to re-write a song, how to work with a band, how a good rehearsal runs.
Next year, I plan on doing a songwriting workshop and the ensemble, but I’ll only go in one day a week.
GD: Let’s look back in your career, when did you first start playing the guitar?
RE: I was around nine or ten years old. My grandfather brought one by the house and left it. It wasn’t a very good guitar but it was my first one. It had palm trees stenciled on the front of it. It was one of those catalog plywood jobs with strings like barbed-wire.
I wanted to be a lefty when I first started because I’m left handed; well I’m (ambidextrous). So I do things with strength with my left hand and fine motor control with my right. I write and eat with a fork with my right hand but I throw a baseball with my left. So I wanted to play guitar left-handed like Paul McCartney and I had a teacher when I first started, and he took my guitar and turned it around and said “trust me kid, I’m left-handed and I play right-handed, it will be an advantage for you.” Sure enough, it turned out to be pretty good. I leap-frogged past the right handed guys because their left hand on the finger-board were struggling to hold the F chords. It was killing them, but not me because I had strength in my left hand.
I probably got fairly serious about guitar when I was 15. When I was 17 I tore my knee up playing football so sports became less of a distraction for me and I started to really focus in on music. I got my union card and started playing in wedding bands. So that’s kinda how it started. I always wanted to be in a rock band.
GD: Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar?
RE: I can play the harmonica a little bit, I’ve played some bass guitar on some tracks; but I would say no. I’m pretty much a guitar player, a songwriter and a singer; that’s what I do.
GD: Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
RE: The Beatles! Everybody my age thought that was it; that’s how you attract the chicks (laughs). I got into guitar playing pretty early and there were guys in high school that had the Clapton records, then there was the Chicago blues and American blues bands like Electric Flag and Paul Butterfield. That led me to Clapton and Hendrix and all of that stuff so then we were in guitar hero land. Then I discovered all of those English progressive bands like Yes and King Crimson, so I loved those bands. Steve Howe in particular and oh I’m forgetting Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple. I loved Ritchie Blackmore! I thought he had the coolest style for a lead guitar player. I imitated a lot of his Blackmore-isms when I played solos. Once you get into progressive rock; that leads you into jazz and everything. The guys in the Yardbirds: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Clapton, those guys were big influences.
Page especially because Triumph was a Led Zeppelin cover band when we first started.
GD: Wow, I didn’t know that. When did you know that you could sing, and did you take vocal lessons?
RE: Well, I never took lessons but I was in choir. I was in a church choir when I was eight-years old; then I was in the school choir. Different teachers would say that I should go for the city-wide choir and things. I was a soprano when I first started then they moved me over to the tenors. It seemed ridiculous to have a boy standing on the same side of the stage with all of the girls. I had a high voice naturally; but I didn’t take choir in high school. The class they put me in was instrumental music and I played violin. I played violin for five years but I’m not very good at it. Notice that when you asked if I played any other instruments I did not say violin! (laughs) It still sounds like I’m torturing cats when I play it!
GD: How did you end up meeting up with Gil Moore and Mike Levine to form Triumph?
RE: I was out playing in a band with some friends of mine called Act 3. It was a trio that was a very progressive bar band. They came to see me play and they were looking for a guitar player to do their hard rock/heavy metal kind of thing. They knew that they were going to call it Triumph; they printed up posters and had a record deal. They just needed a guitar player. They tried different guys but they weren’t happy. They saw me play and I think Gil thought I was too “tuti fruity” and progressive and that I might not be the guy. But Levine said “Oh no, this is the guy. We want the blonde guy that will jump around on stage.” That would have been the summer of 1975 and I started playing with them in September of ‘75. So I would have been 22.
GD: So everything was set; you joined the band and they already had the record deal ready to go.
RE: Well, they had a record deal. They had a development deal; so they had a single and the record company had the option if they liked what they saw once the band was up and running, they could say “ok, here’s a small budget, go into the studio and make us an album.” That was the deal that Mike had negotiated before he even had a band. That shows you how smart Mike Levine was, or is. He still is!
GD: Right! I understand that they misspelled your name on the first record, why didn’t you have it corrected, or at least have it spelled correctly on the second album? You actually changed your name or at least Rik became your stage name.
RE: R-I-K is going to be pronounced the same way as R-I-C-K so that’s not a huge deal. It was a thing where they already printed up 20,000 jackets with the mistake on it. It’s funny that you ask this question right after I say how smart Mike Levine was because he was the one who misspelled it!
The jackets were already printed up and I went “Oh, who cares?” I can adopt that as a stage persona; I’m the Rik who lost his ‘C’. It’s funny, after all these years because I was born Richard Gordon Emmett and I was called Ricky by my parents. As soon as I started going to school I was called Richard by everyone: teachers, schoolmates. To this day when I see people from high school, they call me Richard. No one ever called me Rik. Then you get to be in show business and the Rik sort of became my show business kind of guy. Kinda like Vincent Furnier became Alice Cooper. He had a complete stage persona, it’s not even him, it’s somebody else. The R-I-K Rik is the guy who kinda has a career. But when I go to the supermarket and use my credit card, it’s Richard! It mattered very little to me at the time but it made me a little different and kinda cool.
GD: What was it like touring in the late 70’s? Do you remember opening up for anyone in particular and what was one of your favorite Triumph tours?
RE: We never really went on tour and opened for other people. That wasn’t the road that Triumph took because we were a very heavy production band right from the get go. In Gil and Mike’s mind, specially Gil’s, we were going to be blowing off flash-pots and shooting flame throwers and having big signs and have used car lights flashing all over the stage. He was big into production because that was his thing. We always had that and when you are an opening act you can’t use any of that stuff. We told RCA that we would rather go into a market and play in a small place but do our own thing and headline and do it with a cheap ticket with the local FM radio station. That way they would kinda be the concert promoter at the same time so now we’re developing the politics of getting some air-time. Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, all of those places, that’s how we got into the market. We would come and play a small theater and we were able to do all of our “boom, bang” for a buck ninety-nine ticket. Then the word of mouth would take over. Who ever did that became fans. We didn’t sell a million albums out of the box, it took years and years to build up to that. We did become a band that could sell a lot of concert tickets because word of mouth, people said “You have to see this band live.”
So we didn’t really open for anyone, but we would do it from time to time if it was a big outdoor show or special events. We did open up for Alice Cooper one time, in Cleveland. It was the Richfield Coliseum, we did a New Year’s show there and we opened for Alice.
You also asked me about some favorite shows. Of course the US Festival in ‘83 on Heavy Metal Day. We also did the Rose Bowl that year, opening for Journey. Journey was doing really, really big stadium shows by then. I do remember that. We did a thing in Kalamazoo one year. It was a festival and they flew us in on one of those military helicopters and it didn’t have any doors on it. They dropped us off on a ski slope.
GD: Was it the usual “musical differences” that caused you to leave the band or do you think the band had run its course?
RE: I left the band in ‘88 and it had gone sour in ‘87. We had the Surveillance album which was kinda the straw that broke the camel’s back. Musical differences, artistic differences, the business direction of the band and I was unhappy. I wanted to have more creative freedom. I couldn’t realize those kinds of things.
When we started out in the band, Mike was married but Gil and I weren’t. Then everyone is married and then they’re starting to have kids. Then you start making money and you have houses and real estate investments and condos and land in Florida. These things start to happen and people get drawn away from being in a rock band. You know like the Three Musketeers: “All for one and one for all.” That’s just life and I think that happens with every band.
So I went out on my own and I’m my own independent agent and I represent myself. I’ve done reunions with Triumph. I shouldn’t speak too soon but I think they are going to play on my album. We get along with each other and Gil has been extremely accommodating having me back in the Metalworks studio recording my album. We are all on extremely good terms, like mature adult people!
Gil doesn’t really want to tour and play the drums again and Mike doesn’t really play his instrument really much anymore either. For me to do what I want to do; I have my own band and hire my own guys. It’s a nice working circumstance for me.
GD: That was going to be my next question. I know that you played a couple of reunion shows in 2008 and it seemed like that was the time to do a big reunion tour but that never materialized.
RE: Gil was the one that really wasn’t into it. After those two shows he felt like, “Ok we’ve done it, we came full circle and I’ve proved that I can and now I don’t want to. I want to go play golf and run my business and enjoy my family.” He had a second marriage and his kids are younger and that’s great, no problem! I think it’s fantastic. There is going to be a recording reunion of sorts. It’s only going to be one track, but it’s a pretty cool track! It’s one that rekindled a friendship and it’s kinda a cool thing. I think the general public will be pretty interested in it.
GD: Well, you piqued my interest for sure and I can’t wait to hear it. Tell me about this acoustic tour, what can fans expect?
RE: We play all of the Triumph hits. Some of them have been moved down into somewhat more modest keys. I don’t necessarily sing as high as I used to. Then we will play some cover songs. We have our own instrumentals. We call our thing the Troubs. We will play interesting and difficult instrumental guitar pieces. We may throw in “The Boys of Summer” or something like that. We have fun; I tell stories and have some banter with the audience.
GD: I love those storytellers kind of shows and I am definitely looking forward to seeing you.
RE: Right on!
GD: Thank you so much for your time and I’ll see you soon!
RE: Great, thank you.