Rik Emmett is one of those guys that came along at an odd point in my path of musical discovery. I knew more about his solo work (because that's where I encountered his music initially) and less about his glory days as the singer/guitarist for Canadian arena rockers Triumph in the '70s and '80s.
This year's release of Triumph: Greatest Hits Remixed did a lot to further flesh out the music of Triumph for me beyond the hits and one of these days, I'll dig into their catalog releases that I inherited on vinyl a year or so ago. For now, with Emmett back on the road for a fresh set of dates with songwriting partner Dave Dunlop (as part of a duo originally known as the Strung-Out Troubadours and now, simply shortened to a new nickname of "The Troubs"), I figured I'd take the opportunity to lock in an interview with Emmett and chat about a few things. Talking with Emmett really made me excited about the upcoming Cleveland date at The Winchester on Saturday, September 25th (there are two shows at 7pm and 10pm) and I think we covered some really interesting ground.
I'm really stoked that you're coming back to Cleveland and obviously you've got a lot of history with the city. Is there a particular Cleveland-related memory that comes to mind when you think about the city?
Oh geez. I think we played that city one time if I recall correctly, it was around New Year's Eve and we opened for Alice Cooper on a Triumph show [our historians have been unable to come up with specific details on a pairing of Cooper and Triumph, but we did dig up evidence of a Triumph headlining performance on New Year's Eve of 1984 at the Richfield Coliseum, thanks to some help from ATV friend Scott Banham]. Of course back in the day Triumph never really ever opened for anybody because we always wanted to have big flash pots, flame throwers and all the rest of that kind of nonsense. But this was a thing where Jules Belkin had sort of said "look, you want to get in good with us, come here and be part of this big New Year's thing." I seem to recall we were out at the Richfield Coliseum - we seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere - you'd drive forever and forever. I remember that gig and there was an Agora show at some point and now of course I'm getting older and so my memory is a lot shorter, the Alzheimer's is kicking in so now I only really remember the Winchester which is where I'm playing [laughs].
It's interesting to hear you mention Jules Belkin, because it was definitely unique for the time that there were certain promoters in certain cities that made it happen for bands that were trying to break out at the time. Watching Phil Collins of Genesis thank the Belkins from the stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions earlier this year makes it clear how much of an impact the Belkins had on a lot of bands and musicians.
Oh yeah. I guess if you grow up and you only live and stay in one market you might be thinking that your market is kind of unusual or unique. But every market has people that sort of own it and run it - it's their territory and their turf. The Belkin thing - if you weren't in with them, you weren't going to be able to succeed. I guess you guys in Cleveland, you get to see a little bit of that when you see the turf protection stuff going on around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all of that stuff about the roots of rock and roll in Cleveland with Freed and the folks that had that impact on radio in the early days. Every market you would travel to there were certain key people that you had to kind of end up on their good side one way or another or they were going to be getting a little piece of the action somehow one way or the other. In Toronto, where I grew up, there was a guy named Michael Cohl, and of course now he globally runs that Rolling Stones franchise. But he was the Jules Belkin of Toronto for a while.
Now, I'm aware of your recent activities, but what is it specifically that's bringing you to town for The Winchester show and back to the road for your current set of tour dates?
Dave Dunlop and I have this thing called Strung-Out Troubadours and our last album was called Push & Pull. I'm not sure if we played The Winchester back when that came out or not the first time around [they did play The Winchester in fact, in October of last year], but we're just looking to do some fall dates. We wanted to try and break in some new material and start trying some different things off of the stage. So we're doing a little run where we're hitting Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, and then we're going over to the Eastern Seaboard and doing a run where we're hitting Boston, Philly and New York a little later on, amongst our other activities.
We've been experimenting - we've got some slightly new twists on some material and we're maybe going to try to add some new repertoire. We're also going to try to incorporate a little interactivity into what's going on. We're going to have a hat and if people want to chuck their name into the hat, we're going to do a draw so that a couple of lucky folks can get up on stage and sing backgrounds on one of the old Triumph songs. I'm not sure if we'll do it every night, but we're going to try and do some stuff where we...I don't know if you've ever seen that sort of improv comedy where they take suggestions from the crowd about circumstances or moods or whatever. So we're going to solicit some stuff about style and what kind of chords people want to hear, we'll write them down and then we're just going to try to instantly create a little improv song. We'll try to have a little bit more fun and then bring the crowd into it a little bit more and have a little more sort of intimacy and interactivity in what we're doing.
I've missed the previous couple dates that you've done at The Winchester, so it sounds like I picked the right time to catch up and finally see you.
Oh yeah! It's a nice little venue and it's got a nice little stage and sound system. If he could only get a washroom off of the dressing room, that would be ideal. Normally we do two shows [at The Winchester] and you finish the first show and you're backstage and you're going "man, I really have to go." After the [first] show there are folks straggling out of the house and people coming in [for the next show] and you go "man, I don't want to go to the front to go to the bathroom." Last time I went, there was some woman that insisted that I had to give her hugs and I was dying to go to the bathroom. She had just come out of the bathroom and I was thinking "geez, I hope she washed her hands!" [laughs]
As far as this new material that you're road testing, are you already looking at doing another album release?
Well, I'll tell you Matt, my feeling about the music business is as topsy-turvy as anybody. I'm not sure where things are going and what's going to happen. Here's what I've kind of got going on in my head right now - I'm thinking that I want to make a complete break with any sort of old paradigm of how you used to put together a whole album and then figure you had to put together a marketing plan for that album. Then, out it came and you'd try and go out and tour and support it.
I just think all of that stuff has been blown apart by digital technology and then what's happened in the industry, the impact that file sharing has had and all kinds of things. The market is so unbelievably over-saturated with stuff and there are so many other kinds of options that people have now for entertainment and recreation and it's so hard to get noticed. Especially for me, a 57 year old guy that's still out there trying to make music that may not necessarily be geared towards the Lady Gaga people or the Bieber fever kind of kids - it's a slightly more mature sophisticated [music] and as soon as you start saying those words, oh my God, you're just narrowing your demographic down further and further to tinier and tinier slices of the pie that are out there.
Here's what I'm thinking - why not just take advantage of digital technology? As soon as I've got something that I think is kind of good, instead of necessarily making some sort of album of this stuff and getting sidemen in and spending all of the money and making a record which I'll never make all of my money back on, why don't I just try to get a really good digital recording of it [or] digital video capture of it. And then put it up on my website as a download and start that as "yep, here's a new song." It's just a new song and it's just a digital download kind of thing. Slowly but surely what I'd love to do is get back to almost a weekly or at least monthly kind of activity - there'd be a couple of new songs and maybe a guitar piece. Part of it too is that I tend to be fairly eclectic and I do lots of different styles, so it never really hangs together much as an album anyway. So I've had to wait longer periods of time until the piles of stuff stylistically match. Oh, I have my boutique finger style album over here, oh I've got my singer/songwriter stuff over here, oh my electric stuff is compiling over here - I get to the point where I go "this is taking too long."
I think the modern paradigm now and what I'm teaching my classes at college [Emmett teaches a music business course at Humber College in Toronto] and we're talking about the independent spirit and business paradigms, it's really like having a bakery where you gotta have fresh stuff and you've gotta get it up there and your small but loyal clientèle will come because there are certain things of yours that they want. But they'd be willing to try something else, so if they come to your bakery because they like your cookie, well they might try your raisin bread if it's fresh and it's there and it captures their imagination. So I'm thinking I should be practicing what I preach, so that's where I'm headed, that's what I think is going to happen. I don't think I'm necessarily going to manufacture runs of albums anymore and worry about artwork so much and blah blah blah, I think that's all dead and gone.
That's an answer! I'm going to give you a gold star for that one, because you really laid it out there with that one.
[Laughs] Well, it's not like I don't think about these things because I have to teach every week and so you cement certain ideas in your head. I've been working at this one for a long time. I was one of the first people to have a website on the internet that did stuff like have a store, a members section where you can talk to Rik, send emails back and forth, all of that kind of stuff. Of course it's not like I'm Radiohead or anything, so it's not like I made such a huge impact on the market that people in the New York Times started writing about me. You know, you just sort of fiddle along and diddle along and in my own little small way, all I'm really trying to do is keep cobbling it together. But like I said, I think it comes to a point where you have to practice what you preach.
Well, I was going to talk about that. You haven't relied on a record label in a long time, and your website has always been an important vehicle since the mid-'90s for getting your music out there. And back in the Triumph days, you guys always took care of a lot of your own business there as well. You've never really been a guy to rely on other people to do the heavy lifting and get your stuff out there.
It's nice to make it sound like I did all of the heavy lifting. Certainly, back in the Triumph days, [Triumph drummer] Gil Moore especially did a lot of the heavy lifting inside that band. Mike Levine was probably one of the most active, experienced and respected radio promo guys in the business - and he was the bass player in the band! But he knew more about radio promo and was on a first name basis with every music director and program director at every station, especially in the United States. So, I'm not going to take all of the credit, but we were a self-managed entity for a great deal of time. I think that when it was mutually decided that the record business was kind of going "yeah, he's getting too old for us and everything is changing."
There was that sea change that started to happen around 1991/1992 where there was the rise of Seattle grunge and the demise of rock bands and heavy rock bands and the MTV hair bands. [Prior to that,] Triumph had tried to make the transition from being just a straight forward arena rock band to being loved by MTV and trying to make that transition, but we were getting a little bit old for it and our heart wasn't really in it. By the time I'd gotten into the mid-'90s it became obvious to me that I was going to have be doing the lifting for myself. You know, I think it's a funny thing that over time - Triumph was inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame a couple of years back and it wasn't because we'd sold so many records that we had made such a huge impact on the industry or in the marketplace. I think what they would recognize, because it [Triumph] did have an independent spirit long before that was a fashionable thing. Triumph was kind of the first of the indie bands that did it in house, managed itself and had its own studio.
So it's funny how things trend and now we're in a place where everybody has to do that now. There's no more record labels that are willing to underwrite it or stick with you long enough to make it happen. There's very few bands that don't have an understanding and knowledge of how the music business works - they don't have any choice, they have to learn. I think there was a pioneering aspect there, but I'm not going to take all of the credit.
I certainly wasn't trying to assign all of the credit to you, because I know the layout and the story. It's funny, when I was talking to Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman a few weeks ago, he was laughing and remembering the times when they used to get royalty checks on a regular basis.
Well, there used to be a paradigm and Triumph was on the back end of it. When we made our first record deal in the States, and I'm talking 1977/1978, somewhere around there, RCA did not want to sign the band unless the band had a manager in between. They absolutely insisted that there would be a level of administration or a buffer, because they didn't want to have to come to the band and say "okay, this is something about you that we think really sucks and we want you to change it." There was that paradigm of here's the act, there's the manager, there's the booking agent, so that's something we were talking about, the heavy lifting and then the flow of the money. The record company was like the bank - you'd make loans, they'd give you the money. And then if you were lucky enough to start selling a lot of records, yeah, you'd see royalty checks. There used to be a sort of thing in the music business of haves and have nots. I think now, there's just a much bigger gap where there's very few haves and most of everybody is a have not. And so you're on your own - you'd better get out there and play your gigs and hock your t-shirts.
Let's shift back and talk about Push & Pull, your latest release with Dave, which has more of an electric sound to it. Was there a conscious shift in the songwriting that inspired that change of direction?
It started out as an incredibly informal little duo of writing little guitar pieces together and then little songs together. It was kind of growing organically like "it shouldn't all be instrumental, why don't we sing a song or two?" So then on the second album, we did a little bit of that. And then we went "you know, maybe we should have a rhythm section on this track." It sounds like this one could use a little bit of drums and maybe a little piano, maybe a little bass. Slowly but surely, the songs were starting to take on the shape of being band track kinds of things again. We had this strange little aberration thing that had occurred where we got embraced by smooth jazz radio. I had had albums that I had made in the past on my own where I had had some success at smooth jazz radio here in Canada. We got some airplay and I won an award or two.
So when the Troubadours album came out, that community kind of embraced us and geez, we got nominated and we won some awards. So then we kind of thought well, we might as well pursue that and take some of these songs - when you've got a song, there's a million ways you can stylize it. You can arrange it in certain ways and add certain instrumentation, orchestration or whatever when you're in the studio, in order to push it in a certain direction or not. We've seen quite clearly that there's lots of tunes that we heard them when they were hard rock anthems and then you see a VH-1 Storytellers and there's the guy up on stage and he's strumming it on an acoustic guitar and playing it for you. And you're like "oh, this must have been the way he presented it to the band" in the first place. And isn't it interesting, the song is pretty much still there, it's like great, it doesn't necessarily need all the stuff around it. For us, we started with no stuff around it and then we just got to the point organically where we're going "ah come on, let's put some stuff around it." That's kind of what happened.
So where would you say that the new material you're bringing out now sits in comparison to the current stuff?
I try to articulate the whole journey as an artist to my students as one that's sort of never-ending. You're thinking that it's an infinite task. I try not to do too much compartmentalization or categorization. I just think that it's all part and parcel of one flow that's going on. Certainly, people are going to perceive differences and there are going to be things that are quite naturally occurring organically in my process where "ah, this thing is really different than this thing." I don't know - for me, the one concern that I always have is just to be prolific. I just want to keep being creative and try to keep coming up with stuff. Sometimes it's going to be a finger style guitar piece that somebody might listen to and go "wow, that's very middle of the road melodic and very accessible." And then I'll play something and they'll go "oh my, that sounds like it's very jazzy and challenging and almost fusion in its nature." [Laughs] Then you play something and they say "that sounds like a folk song," and then you play something else and they go "man, I could really hear that as an anthem in an arena." I go "well, I don't know" - I didn't start out thinking along those lines - I just kind of let the song happen.
In truth, I always tell my students [that] you really have to try and let the song lead you. If you try and get your ego out in front of it or you start making conscious decisions like "I must be wearing the purple hat when I play this, because purple hats are really important." That's got nothing to do with the music! I always let the music lead me and then later if somebody says "you know what would go good with that music? A purple hat!" And then I go, "okay then, it's a purple hat song!"
Since you've mentioned your students a couple of times, what are a few of the basic fundamentals that you like to impart to your students and young guitar players.
Oh, just to be humble and that it's an awful lot of hard work. You have to have a conscientious approach to all aspects and all facets of the music business career. On of the big things that I keep telling students is that in the final analysis, you've got to be offering people something that money can't buy. Everybody's trying to cobble a career out of this and make some money, and that's all well and good, but if you make it look like you're that guy that's on the late night television infomercial trying to sell you the new chopper or whatever, that makes it seem like you're not in it for the right reasons, you're in it for the wrong reasons. I think that the right reason has to be that you've put your blood, sweat and your tears and your heart and soul and all of that stuff into what you're doing so that when somebody gets a chance to hear it, they go "man, there's something in that music that money can't buy! That's going further than I anticipated or imagined, and isn't that fantastic?" And of course then, people, they'll pay anything to get it. They'll go "I'll pay for a scalper's ticket because I want to see that guy because I know he gives me something that money can't buy." If there's a short cut secret, and I don't think it's a secret, I just think it means you're going to have to work 10 times harder than you thought you would. But I think that's at the heart of it.
Just looking back a bit, I heard the tracks from your solo debut [Absolutely, released in 1990] for the first time as you were playing live during a radio broadcast from the Empire Concert Club, a club here in Cleveland that's long gone.
Oh yeah, I remember that one now! [Laughs]
It struck me as a really powerful statement and a strong first move for your debut as a solo artist. 20 years later as you look back, what was it like making that transition from being a member of Triumph to being a solo artist? As a listener, Absolutely came across as a very confident record, so it seems like something you would have been happy with at the time.
I was, but I do remember it as an extremely emotionally turbulent difficult time in my life. It was just weird to be kind of caught in a situation where I really wanted to try to step out on my own. I wasn't sure what form that stepping out was going to take. And then of course you have all of the pressure - managers and agents and record company people that are leaning over your shoulder saying "now now Rik, you shouldn't go too far away from that image." You have that Absolutely cover and you can see there's a guy that he's got the MTV hair and he's got the leather jacket and he's playing the black Les Paul. That was what record companies, managers and agents were saying, you've got to do this. I do think it had a certain kind of strength, but now when I listen to the record I go "geez, there's an awful lot of late '80s/'90s kind of reverb in the mixes." There was reverb on everything! Reverb for the snare, reverb for the kick and reverb for the background vocals and it just seems gargantuan and dynamically over the top sometimes now when I listen back to it. There's a song on there called "Middle Ground" that is still one of the most important songs I play when I play little acoustic shows. I realized that song had more value when it was more intimate and more personal, so that was part of it - the production maybe pushed me a little bit outside of the comfort zone. But I didn't even know what my comfort zone was.
And I just want to say this quickly - I heard today that [drummer] Mike Portnoy has left Dream Theater. He put out an announcement on his site and talked about how this would be shocking and heavy duty and it certainly was heavy duty for him. That took me right back to that time period in 1988/1989 when I left Triumph. You've got people that are saying "how can you do this, how can you betray the things that you've stood for for so long and that you were an integral part of," and blah blah blah. But in the end, you've kind of got to do what your heart tells you. Why else did you choose a life as an artist if you're not gonna do that and sometimes the choices are hard. I think the Absolutely album for me was one where it was a statement of saying "you know, life isn't so simple, life is kind of complex." So I wanted a record that had a little bit of that. It had ballads and then it had progressive kind of tunes like "Stand and Deliver" and it had vocal kind of, I don't know what you'd call them - fugues or rounds or something and finger style guitar. It had a lot of stuff and I'm thinking it will be pretty interesting to see what Portnoy comes up with next, now that he's made this step, now what does he do - what's his definitive statement? That's all I've got to say about that.
I don't want to dwell on it but you're right, when he made his announcement, it was really shocking to me - I wasn't so much shocked that he did it, but it's one of the biggest departures and lineup changes that we've heard about in a while.
Yeah, and it was his band for crying out loud. That band was his band and his dad was the one that came up with the name for it, for crying out loud. So that's a real shocker.
Lyrically through the years, there's been a lot of positivity, spiritual and political stuff in your lyrics. Were there record labels that gave you a hassle about putting that stuff on the records?
Not so much a hassle but you deliver load of demos or even a certain group of masters to a label and then their reactions and responses would be trickle back. And it would be like "yeah, so are there going to be any heavier songs on the record?" Like "are you going to have anything where you really kind of wind up on an electric guitar and really rock? Because we'd sure like to hear some of that." You can hear that on my Ipso Facto album, which was the album that followed Absolutely, because I'd made these tunes that were kind of R&B and sort of melodic and relaxed and then it had finger style guitar pieces. I delivered that to the record company and they're going "some of these are very nice songs, Rik, but are you going to rock? Because we don't really want to put the record out unless it's got some rock." So then I had to go back to the drawing board and put songs like "Bang On," "Straight Up" and "Rainbow Man" on the record so that it would cover that aspect of being heavy. So now that record wasn't just schizoid, it was like Sybil where it had three or four different kind of personalities to it. But then I realized that that's kind of who I am anyway! It becomes much much harder to market and in fact in some ways you just kind of shoot yourself in the foot.
Wrapping up, the current project name of Strung-Out Troubadours has been shortened to The Troubs - what's the story behind that?
We live in an age of soundbites, right? You get to the point where you're talking about things and you're sending emails and you just don't want to have to type out Strung-Out Troubadours! And then you've got SOD, so SOT is not a very good short form, so then it just kind of became The Troubs.
And they probably see Strung-Out Troubadours and then they're scared to see the rider you're going to send over.
Final bit - what's the current word on Triumph?
We had a dinner this summer with the guys from Live Nation and had some conversations about potential tours and what might happen and then since then, nothing. In truth, I think honestly Gil Moore has that whole Metalworks empire - you know he's got a studio and a school and a production company and it's growing and it's doing gangbusters and I think he probably - Gil always did have a very strong workaholic kind of nature and I have a feeling that he's just sitting there now going "love my life, love my job, love what I'm doing here, [I] don't necessarily need to try and gear myself up as a drummer to play a 75 minute show, sing half the songs, [and] go on and have to do that, [I] would rather be doing this."
I'm not sure anything will ever happen. If someone came along and said "look, can't you just do this one [show]" and I imagine it might be Canada too that somebody would come and say "hey, we're having this huge outdoor Canada concert thing, will you guys just reunite and come on out more time for a million dollars?" And then I think Gil and Mike might go "yeah, that sounds pretty good, sure!" Until that happens, I'm not sure. They don't want to go out and do a tour where they're just going to take a small production and play casinos or something. I just don't think that's going to happen. It doesn't matter to me - I'm quite content taking my acoustic guitar and going and playing acoustic shows in places like The Winchester. For me, I just want a chance to play every now and then and gig, write new tunes and get a chance to air 'em out. So I don't necessarily need Triumph to be able to fulfill that and I get the sense that neither do the other two guys.
Catch Rik Emmett at The Winchester on Saturday, September 25th for two shows at 7pm and 10pm. Tickets for each performance are $20 and you can reserve your tickets now by calling the club at (216) 226-5681. Check out Rik's complete list of upcoming performances here.