Triumph’s Rik Emmett on the merits of the power trio and his secret song for Randy Rhoads

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 11, 1983

By Steve Newton

Triumph’s Rik Emmett is a man of many moods on guitar. Though best known for supplying the driving rhythms and rapid-fire leads that are trademarks of his group’s two-fisted sound, Emmett never hesitates delving into the subtle and contemplative realms of classical and jazz as well. On the latest Triumph album, Never Surrender, and cuts like “A Minor Prelude” and “Epilogue (Resolution)”, he proves that even within the power-trio format there is plenty of room for diversity.

Emmett’s willingness to explore various musical forms is what sets Triumph apart from a lot of other bands that can do nothing but boogie. Ever since the band’s self-titled debut of 1975 he’s made a point of including at least one soothing and reflective instrumental on each album released. “Moonchild” on the first album, “El Duende Agonizante” on Rock and Roll Machine, “Fantasy Serenade” on Just A Game, “Fingertalkin'” on Progressions of Power, and “Petite Etude” on Allied Forces are all poignant little pieces that run the gamut from baroque to flamenco to ragtime.

But if you’re expecting a night of lighthearted fingerpicking when Triumph comes to the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (February 19), don’t, because Emmett and the boys like to rock, and in concert they’re most likely to shake things up with powerful singles like “Lay It On the Line”, “I Can Survive”, “Magic Power”, and the successful remake of Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”.

Bassist Mike Levine and drummer Gil Moore asked Emmett to join Triumph after seeing him play with another Toronto group in the summer of 1975. That same year they released the Triumph album, and only three years later the group performed before 110,000 people at the Canada Jam in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

Last year saw the band’s fifth album, Allied Forces, become their first U.S. Gold LP. It was listed on Billboard‘s Top 200 Album Chart for 51 weeks and spent ten weeks in the Top Ten of the Radio and Records Top 40 Album list. Like Never Surrender, Allied Forces was recorded at the band’s own Toronto Studio, The Metalworks, which is Canada’s only 48-track computerized recording facility.

In the following interview, Emmett talks about his first musical experience, his hard rock roots, and the critical reaction to rock in general. (By the way, “Rick” Emmett became Rik Emmett when his name was misspelled on the first Triumph album. Says he, “I’ve had enough experience with music business bureaucracy to know that it would be easier to change my name than to get the album cover corrected.”)

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On the new album there are several different guitar styles. On “When The Lights Go Down” there’s the blues intro and ending, “A Minor Prelude” is a classical piece, and “Epilogue” has a jazzy, Jeff Beck feel. Is the music you play for pleasure the same as what you record?

It’s hard to say. What I play for pleasure is everything, and what I get to record now is getting to be a little bit more of everything. I think initially there was a necessity to establish some sort of a basis, and that basis has been hard rock. And I think that’s good, because hard rock will encompass a great deal many more styles than will other forms. If I was a jazz player, for example, I definitely could never wind it up and crank it out.

But I think my basic roots are fairly rock and roll oriented. The stuff that turned me on when I was teenager was Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, that sort of thing. And I as I got older and a little more sophisticated I liked the progressive rock, stuff like Yes, Genesis, and Gentle Giant.

There don’t seem to be many power trios around these days. The only ones that come to mind are your band, Rush, ZZ Top, and Robin Trower. Do you think the power trio is fading out?

I think that, harmonically, a band has to have a lot of depth, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to do that with five people than with three. A trio is a very demanding thing to be in. It requires an awful lot of intensity all the time. Whereas if you’re in a five-piece band you can relax while somebody else is taking a solo, or you can play rhythm guitar while somebody else sings a song. In a trio you have to be working 100 percent all the time.

A trio usually only works if it’s pretty hard rock, though. The Police are a good example of a trio that isn’t really hard rock and yet has been successful. But they supplement themselves; last time out on the road they took a horn section. And the Who musically are a trio, but they take out a keyboard player.

Triumph may supplement at some time in the future, but the trio has been–politically and musically–an ideal situation for us. I like to have a lot of room to move, and a trio affords me that luxury.

A lot of “music critics” think that hard rock is a very limited form of music. For example, a Vancouver reviewer recently wrote that “…for me, the concert didn’t end soon enough. It was dull, lifeless and devoid of original expression. But then, that’s hard rock for you.”

Well that’s something that we’ve always had to put up with. But you’ve got to keep things in perspective. A guy who makes his living as a critic on a daily paper, who has to go and review concerts, really needs to have stuff that’s controversial, with fashionable overtones and socio-economic political kinds of affiliations–because this is fodder for his columns.

But hard rock is a pretty traditional kind of music. It consistently will sell out hockey rinks, and bands that are in that genre will be able to consistently sell records. I don’t think it’s resentment necessarily, but if everybody was able to succeed in music without critics, then the critics would be inconsequential.

How did you come to record “Rocky Mountain Way” on the Rock and Roll Machine album?

That was a strange thing. In the early days of the band, when we played bars, “Rocky Mountain Way” was a song we used to play as an encore. We were playing in Texas and they called us back for a second encore and we didn’t have anything to play–we’d run out of material–so we played that and it went over great.

While recording Rock and Roll Machine we decided to throw a version of it down on tape, just for laughs, and when we came to choose the material we liked the feel of it so much and thought that it was different enough from the Joe Walsh version, that we said, “Hey, let’s stick it on.” It became a big single for us in Canada. It’s got one of those instantly recognizable guitar hooks. When you play those first two chords everybody knows what you’re doing.

Do you like Joe Walsh’s playing style?

Oh he’s okay. Hero-wise I’d have to say Steve Howe was one of my biggest influences, but nowadays I’ll listen to anything. I like Christopher Parkening and Pet Metheny a great deal, and Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs. I like really different guitarists for really different reasons. When it comes to rock I like Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen.

Did you enjoy Randy Rhoads‘ style of playing?

Oh yeah. As matter of fact, the “A Minor Prelude” on the new album is a song that I wrote and was going to dedicate to him. But I sort of changed my mind because I didn’t want to have people saying, “Well sure, this guy dies and you cash in on it by dedicating a song to him.” So at the last minute I took a pass on doing that. But in spirit that song is for him.

To hear the full audio of the interview I did with Rik Emmett two years after this one subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on 300 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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