Rik Emmett ponders the pros and cons of heavy metal while Triumph tours behind Thunder Seven


By Steve Newton

Canadian power trio Triumph will be headlining at the Pacific Coliseum tomorrow (Saturday) night with Australia’s Angel City, in what promises to be an evening of intense, thundering rock and roll.

Mssrs. Rik Emmett (guitar), Mike Levine (bass), and Gil Moore (drums) are touring behind their latest album, Thunder Seven, which was produced by Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin) and features the singles “Spellbound” and “Follow Your Heart”.

Emmett called me from his home in Toronto last week, and talked about the current tour, his views on heavy metal, and life in a hard rock trio.

I’ve been seeing you on TV a lot lately, in your Pepsi commercial. What sort of promotional deal do you have with Pepsi?

Well, we’re now on a 17-date tour across Canada, and because we did the commercial for them, and the jingle that accompanies it, they get to be associated with the tour. We haven’t really toured Canada at all for about four years, so we’re a little bit behind the eight ball in the sense of having this huge production–probably one of the biggest on the road presently–but not really having the kind of groundswell, across-the-board popularity that might justify its cost. So Pepsi made it possible to do it properly.

Do you drink Pepsi in your vodka?

[Chuckles]. I don’t drink vodka, but I do drink Pepsi.

I see in your “Spellbound” video that you’re wearing a Guitar Player magazine t-shirt. Are you still a regular contributor to Guitar Player?

Oh yeah, I write a monthly column for them called “Back to Basics”. I also do a column now for Music Express magazine here in Canada, which is also guitar-related.

Do you like the role of instructor.?

I think it’s important, yeah, and I enjoy it. I used to teach privately in the early days, then once the band became fairly successful I didn’t really have the time anymore so it’s still a way to keep my hand in. I also sit on the advisory board for Canadian Musician magazine, and Humber College’s music program here in Toronto.

There’s two really nice instrumentals on your new album Thunder Seven, “Little Boy Blues” and the classically-tinged “Midsummer’s Daydream”. Because you can play different styles of music, and seem very knowledgeable about it, do you sometimes find it hard getting inspired to play the hard rock, which is probably easier stuff to play?

Well I think it’s a little bit of a misconception that the hard rock is easier to play. Hard rock may be a more basic music form, but…look at blues–it’s probably one of the most basic forms of music of all. And on certain levels it can be incredibly emotional and, in that sense, a very demanding form of music to play. So as far as hard rock goes, I like it! And I don’t have to make any excuses for that fact.

I mean, I’m very much a product of the ’60s and ’70s, bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton in the Cream days–and even back to John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers–that’s the kind of stuff I cut my teeth on. And then I more or less evolved with the British progressive bands like Yes and Genesis, and the American ones like Return to Forever. So with all of those elements being important to me, I try and bring them into what Triumph does. The hard rock thing is always at the core of it.

What do you think of heavy metal?

As it’s generally understood, I don’t really have much use for it. When I think heavy metal I think, you know, studs and leather and lyrics that deal with the subjugation of women or biting the heads off bats, or devil worship, or whatever. To me that’s a lot of posturing; it’s image-oriented, it’s novelty, it’s very shallow. Those kind of things exist in the music business because the music business is show business.

But there are some heavy metal bands that are really good, and I’ll give you an example. We did a big outdoor show in England several years ago, and it was Motorhead and us and Ozzy Osbourne. Now Motorhead, to me, are an example of a terrible, terrible band. I thought they were just nothing but noise. Disgusting.

But when Ozzy’s band came out they had Randy Rhoads on guitar, Tommy Aldridge on drums, and Rudy Sarzo on bass. It was one of the best rock bands I ever saw in terms of tightness and ensemble work between the players. The only weak point, really, was Ozzy’s singing. He’s a bit of a showman and he’s naturally got a huge following from his Black Sabbath days, so the kids were there to see Ozzy go through his schtick. But the band itself was very very good.

So in the same way that heavy metal can be very shallow and terrible and lousy and can stand for a lot of the worse things that commercial music can be about, it can also be a really wonderful thing.

Being in a power trio for so many years, do you ever yearn for the interaction of another guitarist?

Oh yeah, sure. We have regular discussions [laughs]. But the other guys don’t want to go for it–they figure that a trio is a trio, and you don’t spoil the chemistry or the intrinsic balance. And as far as that goes, I have to agree with them. In the early days it was the least way to have to split money and still have a band! But now it’s like your family, and you don’t just go out and add somebody to your family without a lot of thought and discussion.

l’ve even suggested to the guys we could maybe do a thing like the Who used to do, where the band is still just four guys, but when you go out on tour you hire a keyboard player or guitar player or something, just to supplement it and make it musically a little bit more diverse and interesting.

I understand that Triumph are using some of the Jacksons’ stage equipment on their current tour.

Well, we have the same laser company out with us that they had on their tour but of course we have our own programs written into the computers. And we’re using some computer graphics and animation, so we’ve taken it a little step further than they did. 

I’ve got just one more question for you Rik. Does Mike ever get bugged to cut his hair or trim his moustache?

[Laughs loudly]. No, not that I know of. I don’t think his mom minds.

It’s just that his grooming doesn’t really fit in with the “eighties image” most bands try to put across.

Oh shit. We’ve never really been concerned with that stuff–image or whatever. Maybe to our own detriment. I mean we realize that you’ve gotta have pictures taken and you’ve gotta kind of look nice and so maybe you’ve got to put a little makeup on so that your nose isn’t shiny or whatever, but… I mean I’m supposed to play guitar and people are supposed to listen to the music, and it’s whether or not they like the music and whether or not I played well that’s important. That’s all I worry about.

To hear the full audio of my 1985 interview with Rik Emmett subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
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John Hiatt, 2010
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Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
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Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
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Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
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Billy Idol, 1984
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Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
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John Mellencamp, 1999
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J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
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James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
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Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
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Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
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