Rik Emmett Triumph Meets Rush!

By Jeb Wright

Rik Emmett is a guitar icon.  He is a master of his craft as well as a wonderful teacher and a talented performer.  With the band Triumph his records went Platinum.  As a solo artist, he has been less predictable and more eclectic. He has shown expertise in rock, classical, blues and even jazz. He not only plays in each genre, he composes as well.

Rik is back in the mix with a new rock band album along with some very special guests.  Alex Lifeson of Rush makes his presence heard on two of the tunes as does Dream Theater vocalist James LaBrie.  Two other guests steal the show for Triumph fans, though, as the original Canadian trio reunited for the tune “Grand Parade.”  Climate change alert! That means Hell is beginning to freeze over!  Maybe one day Hell will freeze solid and Mike Levine, Gil Moore and Rik will make that Triumph album fans have been wishing for during the last several decades.  Doubtful… but, as this move proves, it could happen!

Read on as Rik discusses the album in-depth and even talks about what it might take to put Triumph back on the road… at least for one more spin in the parking lot.

Jeb: We have to begin with the reunion of Triumph on the song “Grand Parade”… that’s a cool-ass song and I want you to tell me about it… But dude, I wanted a rocker so bad! [laughs]

Rik: Well, you would have had to talk Gil Moore into that one. In truth, I picked a ballad because I thought about the meaning of the song… it’s about us! It is about the three guys and about getting our friendship back. It’s kind of based on a true story of us getting together every year at Christmas and having a dinner together and swapping tall tales and having a few too many drinks and all that kind of stuff. I just sort of shifted it from just before Christmas to New Years because that sort of gave it a little bit more of a writerly focus. I heard it even more laid back than it is, but Gil kind of gave it the Gil Moore kind of treatment. So it ended up a little heavier and darker than I imagined it would be.

Jeb: Dark’s a good word. The first few notes I’m thinking, “Damn, he went soft for this”… and I’m just being a Triumph fan, you know. But then the lyrics, I was like, “Damn you, Rik, now I gotta like it” because they were just awesome!

Rik: Well, thank you. The thing is that there are Triumph fans that are fans of things like “Suitcase Blues” that’s really where that one’s coming from. It’s the idea of Gil and Mike sort of giving me enough rope that I can hang myself, so that’s really where that one’s coming from.

Jeb: The lyrics hooked me. Triumph fans that listen to the song and know anything about the story will get it.  Is this tune and the rest of the album all brand new tracks, or were you dusting off some old ideas?

Rik: Well, they’re pretty much all new. I mean, I write all the time, but that’s not to say that I’m writing all of the time. I sort of remain open to the idea of putting things in notebooks and capturing ideas down on tape when I get little ideas. I had a fairly large stockpile of stuff. But it’s not like I’ve been sitting for five or six years. Some of those tunes… maybe I’ve been sitting on them for two or three. And in fact, two of the songs, “End Of The Line” and “Stand Still,” they really didn’t really come together in the way that they’re produced and arranged on the record until they were literally already in rehearsals.

That stuff, the band kind of worked that up and I should say this, like all the songs you hear there, Dave and Steve kind of helped me narrow it down from maybe about fifteen or sixteen songs to the eleven that are on there… there are the ten and then there’s the Triumph song. So the ten songs that you hear they heard that through voice and acoustic guitar and then they sort of said, “Okay, let’s focus on these ones and let’s work these ones up”. And then the arrangements were done with the band. It was a fairly current process and we didn't let the grass grow. From the beginning of the label, Mascot, saying, “Okay, let’s make a deal” to the delivery of the record was probably only three months, three and a half months, something like that.

Jeb: Wow, that’s pretty quick!

Rik: Yeah.

Jeb: This album is not as diverse as some of your other solo albums. Do you just look at the album as a collection of songs?

Rik: I don’t worry about styles or whether I’m being eclectic or not when I’m creating. Whatever comes to me I follow through on the idea. As I tell songwriting classes all the time, one of the things you’re trying to learn is to learn how to listen to what the song is telling you it wants to be. So I just follow that until it’s done. But on this project, I had Dave whispering in my ear from even before it started, saying, “You know, Rik, you’ve got another good rock record in you and I should be the producer. I will help you pull the best rock record you have ever made out of your ass.” So that was how it started before I even had Mascot coming around and asking me if I wanted to try and do this.

Once it got up and running, I relied on Dave and Steve to help me focus the stuff towards -I don’t know what you would call it- the collection. There were certainly some things where they went, “You know, this is too outside the box. This one’s too weird; it doesn’t belong in this ballpark.” You know, they kind of helped produce on that level. In some ways those things become self-evident as you’re working. You start to realize, “Well, you know, this one’s not really turning out that great. Let’s leave it and move on to something else.”

You know, it’s funny. I did an interview with a guy from Sweden yesterday and he said, “Oh my god, what a very eclectic record.” [laughs] To him, he finds it to be stylistically kind of really diverse and eclectic. For me, I kind of go, “Well, I don’t know, it all hangs together pretty good.” I don’t know. Nothing looks the same from the inside then it does from the outside. So when you’re inside something you’re never going to have a full understanding of it.

Another thing that I say to people all the time is to give it six months or give it a year. After people have been listening to it for a while the music starts to change again. Once it’s had an audience and the audience has kind of determined whether or not it’s successful, whether or not this song is an anthem, or that song is their favorite… those things color the impression one has of it over time. As I often say to people, “The songs, once you write them don’t belong to you anymore. They belong to everybody that listens to them.” So that changes them. The experience of having them be heard by other people, digested by them, interpreted by them, loved or ignored by them, it changes the nature of what it is.

Jeb: There’s a thread though this album and it is ‘blues rock’. Now, you do different styles of the blues... like “Sweet Tooth” is a softer, gentler one. You’ve got the hard rocking type, which of course blues is a huge influence on rock, “The End Of The Line” stuff. “Stand Still” is your inner ZZ Top coming out there! [laughs]

Rik: Yeah.

Jeb: So there is a theme through several songs where it makes it a rock record without a doubt.

Rik: That’s very true, and to me that’s kind of the heart of the record. And it’s a good Mascot record in that regard.

Jeb: Good point.

Rik: Because Mascot has a lot of those kinds of guitar players who blues is kind at the heart. You wouldn’t say that Joe Bonamassa is just a blues player. He’s not. And he’s much more of a rock player than an old blues guy, you know.

Jeb: Yep.

Rik: Robben Ford is a pretty sophisticated guitarist. Steve Lukather, you know… there are a lot of players where I go, “My god, this is nice company to be in”. I think I was conscientious about that. The songs had to kind of have an American kind of bluesy thing.

My experience of blues when I was a kid came from Clapton and Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I was getting it sort of second generation. But of course that led me back to the Chicago blues of guys like Buddy Guy and Elmore James and you name ‘em… Muddy Waters… So when Jimmy Page was playing “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” who was he channeling? He was channeling Chicago blues players. So when I’m playing “Ghost of Shadow Town” I’m kind of channeling Jimmy who’s channeling somebody else. You’re just entering into kind of the bloodline. The links of the chain, you know. Definitely blues is at the heart of rock and roll, there’s no question about that.

I mean there’s stuff on that record like “When You Were My Baby”… there’s a lot of it laying around in sections of that. That’s a very urban, southern kind of thing… could’ve been Memphis. But a song like “Ghost of Shadow Town,” that’s Jimmy. A song like “My Cathedral,” which is one of my favorites on the record, I said to the guys in the band when we were putting it together, I kind of want it to be like The Band with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm playing “Cripple Creek,” but I wanted it like Jimi Hendrix is sitting in with them.

Jeb: That’s cool! The thread that I love throughout this whole thing is your guitar soloing on this thing is just frickin’ out of this world. You have a tone. There is an energy to your playing. 

Rik: Well, thank you! I think part of that is that we didn’t beat it to death, you know? A lot of those solos I would play them three of our times and Dave would say, “That’s great. We got it. I’ll edit some licks. I’ll fix it up. Don’t worry, digitally I’ll put it together, but you’re done.” And I would say, “No, no, no… I got it…” and he would say, “Nope. You’re done. It’s fresh. It’s really nice. The energy’s good.”

I want to make sure you know that not all of those solos are me. The solo on “I Sing,” that’s Dave. He fucking kills it! He does a lot of those orchestra shows where he goes out and he has to play a night of Led Zeppelin or a night of Pink Floyd. I have no question in my mind he was channeling David Gilmour on that album on the solo in “I Sing.” That’s one of my favorite solos on the record and I didn’t even play it!

Jeb: That’s awesome! Now, I’ve gone farther than maybe most of the people interviewing you about this, but we gotta talk ‘Alex’, man. “Human Race”… when I got to song two I just went, “There it is!” You’re hearing that a lot, I assume.

Rik: Well, certainly it’s the most accessible song. I knew that I sort of wanted “Human Race” to be front end. In the initial phase of asking guests to play on the record it was more going to be Alex and James LaBrie, each on a different song, but then I thought, “You know what would be nice is if I could get each of them on one other thing.” They’re going to come in for an afternoon, and Alex was in for sort of a morning session and James coming in the afternoon. May sixteenth was one of the nicest days of my life working with those two guys… I thought if these things go well I could then get them to do something else.

When I played some of the stuff for Alex he gravitated to “Human Race” right away. He said, “I want to twelve-string Rickenbacker rhythm on that. I want to be on that track.” And I went, “Okay. That’ll be great!”

I don’t think James LaBrie knew what I was going for on “I Sing,” but he was completely open to it. I wanted the other side of his voice. I knew he could do the stuff that he does on “End of the Line.” He can do that shit in his sleep. That’s him. That’s what he grew up on and what he’s good at. But the “I Sing” stuff, Dream Theater has kind of changed their direction a little bit and he’s singing a different way on the last couple of albums and I wanted a little bit more of that. A little bit more of the softer side of him and the more poetic side of his voice. Those tracks worked out pretty good for me. I was pretty happy.

Jeb: I think for a lot of your fans, like me, having another singer piqued our interest right away because we love your voice. You know what I mean? You have a very distinct voice. It’s like, “Why is he getting another singer on here, you know?” [laughs] Although, if you gotta have somebody guesting with you, James is not a bad cat. That guy’s amazing!

Rik: That’s A... but B: how many friends do you think he has on Facebook?

Jeb: Ha! [laughs]

Rik: The Dream Theater fan set, there’s like four million members or something! So I thought, “Well, you know, when the A&R guy at Mascot Records he contacted me, he was the guy who started pitching the whole idea about guests. He kind of wanted a Canadian bent to that so he was throwing Canadian names at me. But he had managed Dream Theater for a while back in the day. So that was just an easy one. That was a slam dunk to be able to get James to be a guest on the record. I went, “Yeah, yeah, done deal.”

Plus there’s a whole thing, like, the record itself is not really a prog record. But in a way Alex and James, they come from that world, right? I think in a way it lends a little bit of kinda prog integrity or prog authenticity to the songs even though what I’m doing, it’s a song oriented thing. And as you say, it’s kind of a blues rock thing. It’s not prog.

Jeb: No.

Rik: It doesn’t really get there. I mean, “End of the Line” a little tiny bit. “I Sing,” maybe. But “I Sing” is a pretty straightforward accessible kind of pop song, really. Once I got to those two guests then I said to Jim, “That’s enough. I don’t want any more. I want it to be my record. I don’t want it to overshadow what my band will do.” The idea of guests… I didn’t want it to turn into a variety show or something. But as you say, there’s a certain amount of novelty. When you have guests it piques interest. People kind of go, “Hey...”

Jeb: I’m going to pick on “Human Race” for another moment because I think if you’re a guitar player, especially in my age group or ten years either way of me or maybe more, you know who Rik Emmett is and you’ll say, “Damn, Rik Emmett’s good!” But there’s certain songs you’ve written throughout your career where your appeal then goes to the moon and back. And I think “Human Race” has that. It has it lyrically and it has your ability to be a complex writer. But then you come up with this simplistic line… I don’t know if you or Dave did, one of you did…

Rik: Dave!

Jeb: That was Dave? Oh, that’s very cool.

Rik: All I did was bash chords like Pete Townshend.

Jeb: No way!

Rik: Yeah, yeah. You know, I wrote the song and it was just like, “Jeng-jeng-jeng ja-jeng-jeng-jeng.” Dave was the one who came up with that, “Berno-berno-beng.” You know, between us, right. We’re in rehearsal and he’s trying things and I’m going, “No, no, no. Not so busy. Make it simpler. I mean, you gotta think more like The Edge from U2.”

Jeb: Exactly!

Rik: “Think like that and let’s see what you…” So then he built the line. Like I said, I just think it’s an accessible track, you know?

Jeb: But that’s such a nice way to phrase it. To me it’s a, well, it will sound corny, but it’s a human track, man!

Rik: Plus, I mean the drum track on it is phenomenal. I just sent it along, like, “Buddy, think a little bit outside the box the way Keith Moon would have played lots of fills. I want lots of energy, lots of driving fills.” The bridge of that where it kind of goes into half time but the drums keep kind of playing really busy, that just really works for me.

And, of course, he kills it in “End of the Line,” especially the fills toward the end of that. I’m just really happy. I want to make sure that I say that it’s really a band kind of project. It’s not just me. It’s not a singer/songwriter record. It’s more like a singer/songwriter then got a band similar to the way Springsteen would have taken his songs and then the E Street Band puts their signature on it. This is a RESolution 9 record. We picked the name of the band for a reason, because they really are a big part of this album.

Jeb: I was going to ask you about that. If that was an intent to just say, “Hey, this is not a Rik album, this is a band.”

Rik: Yeah, and I’ve told the agents, “No, it’s not just Rik Emmett anymore. It’s Rik Emmett and RESolution 9. That’s how you bill it; that’s how you try and sell it.” I’ve said to Mascot… I don’t even care if I get to see a royalty. Here’s what I care about: I want you to sell enough that you’ll pick up the option for the next one.

Jeb: There you go.

Rik: I want a chance to do another record like this because it was fun. It was just a really nice project, beginning to end… really professional; a fantastic group of guys.

Jeb: What does RESolution 9 mean?

Rik: It’s RE, my initials. The Rik Emmett solution. It’s like the band is the solution to all of my problems.

Jeb: Oh, that’s cool!

Rik: So, RESolution. The nine comes from the fact that Dave has this fucking thing about nine. He has a tattoo of a Chinese nine on his arm. He plays hockey twice a week and he wears number nine. His studio is called Room Nine. To him, nine is the lucky number.

Jeb: Number 9… number 9…

Rik: Yeah! RESolution doesn't sound as hip as like, “Number 9… number 9… number 9…”

Jeb: That’s right! [laughs]

Rik: So, there you go.

Jeb: In the press release they put out you have a quote. I’m going to ask you to expound on it because I found it interesting, especially with all that you’ve accomplished and all that you do. You said in there, and I’ve got it in front of me so I can quote it, “The idea behind a lot of these songs is me trying to figure out who I am.” That’s heavy, man!

Rik: Well, I don’t know. I think that’s what all songwriters of any consequence, that’s part of what they’re trying to do. When Paul Simon writes, “A man walks down the street… soft in the middle. Why am I soft in the middle…” That’s autobiographical stuff, you know? I think the older you get the more you kind of think about songwriting as an exercise where you’re trying to create layers of depth that sort of go beyond just the whatever the accessible commercial kinds of ideas are. Yeah, you’re trying to get everybody to like it, but at the same time you want to kind of think that it’s important to yourself.

It’s not like I’m writing shit out of my diary. It’s more that… I don’t know. Look at it this way, Jeb… How many sixty-two year-old men were offered the opportunity and complete freedom… When I talked to the owner of the record company I said, “Ed, what kind of record are you expecting? What expectations do you have?” He goes, “I don’t have any. You go into the studio and you make whatever record you want. Then when you talk to the press I want you to be able to say, ‘They gave me complete freedom’. I don’t want you to say, ‘the record company, they forced me to do all this horrible shit that I didn’t want to do’. I’ll give you complete freedom and I’ll give you enough money to do it right.”  And so, how many sixty-two year-old men got that opportunity in 2016?

Jeb: You and a hand full of others.

Rik: Not too many people on the planet Earth. So I’m pretty lucky. When you’re given that kind of freedom you think, “Okay, I don’t want to fuck this up. I want to make this be meaningful because I may never get this kind of chance again.”

If this is going to be my last record that I make then I want to go out with a bang. I want it to be really good quality stuff. That was part of the thinking, you know. Why would I want to try to make and record where I was trying to pretend I was forty years old again, or twenty-eight years old again, or whatever? I don’t want to pretend. I want to be real. So that’s figuring out who we are.

Jeb: You’ve mentioned “End of the Line” a few times… is it still just as much fun to beat out a riff like that as it is to do something really cool, like something more ethereal like “My Cathedral”?

Rik: Yes. Yes. Totally. What’s lovely is to get to do both. To be able to have a song like “My Cathedral” and then to say, “Alright boys, we’re bringing the record to a close here. Turn the amps up to eleven and let’s lay it down.” That’s what being in a rock band is like. It can be really cool in that regard.

Jeb: I did want to talk about the opening track too because that one makes you grin when you start. If you’re a guitar player you’re like, “Oh yeah!”

Rik: Yeah. Well, that riff, I’d written that on an acoustic guitar, I don’t know, maybe five years ago or six years ago. And I had it in a notebook. I’d written it out like a rhythm but I had underneath it this, like, do-dack-dack, ka-doodle-la do-dack-dack, ka-doodle-la do-dack-dack. That’s exactly what I had written on the page do-dack-dack, ka-doodle-la do-dack-dack. And then I knew that it was that kind of Billy Gibbon’s kind of thing, right? But I mean, where did Billy get it from, you know?

Jeb: Exactly.

Rik: It’s probably something like John Lee Hooker. That boogie thing’s been around forever. And it’s not like I haven’t done it before either. On the Absolutely album I had a song called “Drive Time.” There are a lot of similarities between “Stand Still” and “Drive Time.”

Jeb: You’re right.

Rik: Isn’t it interesting that the lyric on of one them says, “Okay, its drive time”, and the other one is saying, “Stand Still”?

Jeb: [laughs] Ha! That’s cool!

Rik: That was very intentional. And I did not climb a mountain in Peru. There’s a lyric on there about it. But my wife did.

Jeb: Oh wow!

Rik: My wife went all the way to the top of Machu Picchu. I don’t know if she talked to a guru there or not! Her and my son… they climbed it. They didn’t take the fucking train up. They climbed it! They trained for a while and then they had to go stay at altitude for a bit, but they climbed all the way to the top of Machu Picchu.

Jeb: That’s pretty cool.

Rik: I’m referring to her when I said, “Climbed a mountain in Peru.”

Jeb: Whether it’s “Magic Power” or whether it’s ‘Human Race,” you can go the whole gambit of your career, when you tap into that sort of vibe do you instantly know that you’re kind of on a different plane?

Rik: Well, you know, we can go back a little bit here. I think when Triumph did the Allied Forces album I think we realized that we kind of found the gear that was the Triumph gear. Like, why was the band called Triumph? It had to be about something more than just concert tickets and tee-shirts and trying to get on the radio and trying to make money and blah blah blah. If you’re going to call a band Triumph it’s gotta offer something. It comes from that place that the shit that money can’t buy. It has to have a deeper value with a substantial kind of a spiritual kind of a thing. So I think it’s like “Magic Power” or “Ordinary Man.” We kind of found that this is the heart of the band. This is why we are doing what we’re doing. So once I knew that, then that’s kind of what I’ve been drawing on ever since. A certain kind of fan, that’s why they’re going to come to me. That’s what they hope for. That’s what their expectation is.

The other thing is maybe people look at me and they think, “Ah, you know, Rik Emmett. What a great life he’s had. He’s probably independently wealthy and he’s probably never had bad things happen.” You know, I’ve had a lot of heartbreaking shit that’s gone on in my life, too. So when I write songs sometimes I go, “Well, this is going to be kind of dark and heavy duty.” A song like “Ghosts of Shadowtown” is pretty heavy. It’s pretty dark. But there I say to myself, “There’s got to be something that now makes the dough rise. You gotta have something that is the yeast that lifts the cake, that lifts the soufflé in the oven. You gotta have something that gives people -and I tell this to kids in my songwriting class all the time -yes, your song is dark and deep. Wonderful. But please, light a fucking candle and put it in the window for me, will you? I need a little bit of hope here. Where’s the faith and the hope and the love? I need that from time to time. I don’t need a lot of it, but I need a little. I don’t need somebody to just paint me into a corner. So, I do it for myself as much as I do it for anybody else.

Jeb: The unfair question that I have to ask: Will you ever, do you think, do some shows with Triumph? Does this rekindle anything? I know you guys get along. I know the guys!

Rik: First of all, it’s stupid to speak in absolute terms and say no it’ll never happen because I never thought I would get the chance to make a record like this one again.

Jeb: [laughs] There you go.

Rik: Now look at me. I’m doing interviews three times a day. If you ask me right now in this moment do I think Gil Moore wants to make another album or go out on tour and play shows again? My answer would be no. I don’t think he does. I think he kind of feels like… I think I asked a lot of him to play on the one song on the record.

But for me, that was kind of like closing the circle. I think for him when we played Sweden Rock and Rocklahoma I think Gil felt like he’d closed the circle and that everything was good again, we were all back on even ground. But for me I kind of felt like ah, you know, when we get in the studio one more time and we just record one more song then I think that’ll close the circle for me. Now, circles close and circles open again, you know what I mean? I don’t think there’s anything you can say that’s definitive. I know that Mike would probably go along with anything.

Jeb: Me too.

Rik: But I think it’s Gil that’s the one. And really, in the end, Triumph is his. He owns it. It’s his brand. Those are his masters. He’s the guy that has it for posterity. So he’s the one who’s kind of deciding what his posterity is going to be.

Jeb: That’s wild.

Rik: Yeah.

Jeb: Bringing it back to modern day, are you going to put more and more into your set list? Because you do have a responsibility also to play some of that stuff that guys like me hear from the past. It’s gotta be rough. 

Rik: Naw, it’s not. It’s pretty straightforward. I got a gig today, an offer for 2018 to go on some cruise. You know what they want. They don’t want to hear my new stuff. They want to hear “Magic Power” and “Fight The Good Fight.”  I don’t mind. That’s part of my legacy as much as anything else. But, yes we’ll start putting new songs in the set list. There’s no question about it, and the more successful the record is the more of the new stuff we’ll be able to put in. That’s the game.

I just want to tie back to your question before and say this: If this album becomes really successful, don’t you think there will be pressure? People will be phoning Gil saying, “Hey, hey. Come on! We should get another Triumph album now. Don’t you guys want to do another whole new album? Come on, you should do it!” So if, and that’s an if, RES 9 turns out to be something important in the marketplace, well then Triumph will become important in the marketplace again and he’ll start to feel the pressure that he hasn’t felt for a while.

Jeb: So, Triumph fans need to support this so we can pressure Gil!

Rik: Yeah.

Jeb: Last one, because Alex is on it, and you know if I’m a Triumph fan I’m a Rush nut, you guys have to go way back. I’m just am wondering... do you remember the first time you ever really hung out with Alex?

Rik: Yep. Sure do. Triumph was playing at The Gas Works on Young Street, which was a crap-hole bar that every rock band coming up had to play. I had seen Rush there myself in maybe ’73 or ’74, when they had [John] Rutsey as the drummer.

Jeb: Cool!

Rik: I had seen the band there. And so he came in 1976, and I think it was maybe wintertime-ish, the fall maybe, I’m not exactly sure. He came and he was at the bar and he had a couple of beers and he came and introduced himself after a set. We got to chat for a while. That was the first time I got to meet him.

Jeb: Well, that didn’t turn into a crazy, wild story though. [laughs]

Rik: That? No, no. But for me to get to meet Alex that was a nice thing. For him to come and see the band …

Jeb: That’s pretty cool, man.

Rik: He has always been a pretty cool guy.