Rik Emmett of Triumph: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Rik Emmett of Triumph Interview

Feature Photo: Knipil, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Rik Emmett of Triumph

Interview by Andrew Daly

They’ve often been labeled “just another rock band out of Canada.” And they’re perpetually regarded as second fiddle to another famous, prog-leaning Canadian power trio, Rush. But truthfully, Triumph rocked as hard, if not harder, than many of their supposedly heavier contemporaries.

Sure, the ’70s were decidedly prog-meets-glam for Triumph. And their stage show—with droves of lights, shooting-star lasers, and walls of pyro—sure did back that up. But as the ’80s dawned, Gill Moore (drums/vocals), Mike Levine (bass), and Rik Emmett (guitar/vocals) stripped back their approach and adopted a distinctive edge, resulting in two classic albums, Allied Forces (1981), and Never Surrender (1982).

And it was on the heels of those well-loved records that Triumph climbed on stage for the legendary US Festival in May of ’83, preaching the good word of rock via songs like “Fight the Good Fight” and “Lay it on the Line,” to a sea of fans who hung on their every word. Indeed, the US Festival turned out to be a hell of a moment in ’80s concert history, with fans and the artists who made up the bill still swinging and swaying with nostalgia as they look back.

Looking back on the 40th anniversary of the US Festival, Rik Emmett dialed in with Classic Rock History for a look back on Triumph’s golden era, competing in the shred era, his favorite Triumph album, and his thoughts on the idea of a Triumph reunion.

What are your memories of the 1983 US Festival?

Rik Emmett: At first, we thought, “Oh, this is just another big outdoor show,” it was never something that we thought would be extraordinary. But once we got on stage and were looking out across these fields of human beings, who were all going crazy, we were like, “Oh… this is different.” I remember flying in via helicopter and seeing the sea of people, and I got this vibe that this would be a special moment.

But Triumph played a lot of large-scale gigs around that time, right? What made the US Festival special?

Emmett: It’s hard to describe, but you actually get up there to play a gig like that, and you’re standing on this giant stage with a pit of photographers in front of you and giant screens behind you, a feeling comes over you like, “I better not take this for granted.” The video screens were incredibly awe-inspiring because this was the first large-scale show that I’d seen with screens like that. But it’s funny because, during the dress rehearsal, it feels just like another gig. But that all changes when you get in front of an audience of that magnitude. It goes from another gig to feeling like, “Wow, this is an extraordinary event.”

I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Triumph was also at the height of its powers.

Emmett: Yeah… I sensed that, at that point, we had hit our stride. By the time we got to the US Festival, we had put out Allied Forces and Never Surrender, probably our two biggest records, so we were hitting our stride. So, in that sense, I think you’re right. But what’s also important to remember about that time—especially that summer—was we had played many outdoor shows where we were at the top of the bill. So, we had gotten to a place where we were incredibly comfortable with the idea of playing gifs with no lasers, pyro, or lights. Instead, we were just hammering out our tunes.

Do you feel that altered the perception surrounding Triumph?

Emmett: I do. Because I think the perception that many people had was that Triumph was all sizzle but no steak, you know? A lot of people thought we were all about the stage show but didn’t have the tunes to back that up. So, that summer was essential to us, proving that we were a good band with some great songs. And a lot of that had to do with Allied Forced and Never Surrender because it allowed us to be a part of some huge gigs where we were high on the bill. That’s when all our critics grudgingly went, “Okay, they can play. There’s something here. They’re not like all the other heavy metal bands, but they have their own thing, and it’s worth checking out.”

That’s a good point; Triumph was certainly overshadowed before those two albums.

Emmett: We always had elements of folk, but also hard-rocking moments like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, so yeah, we were overshadowed or overlooked. But those albums granted us a lot of exposure, which was cool because it resulted from an evolutionary thing rather than us trying to force anything. But before then, there were frustrations within the band, probably because of our schizoid nature.

We had songs that I sang and then songs that Gil [Moore] sang, which were always very different. So, tension existed there in the early days, which maybe was a good thing when I think back. I think it helped to a degree, but in other ways, it was hard. It took a bunch of years for us to break through, but it was incredible to be a part of when we did.

Despite the commercial success of Allied Forces and Never Surrender, did you still see yourselves as outliers?

Emmett: It’s debatable. I might have a different sense of this if you caught me on a different day or time. But as we’re sitting here talking now, I think we did have an issue with the rise of MTV, concept videos, images, and the projection of things. Because, yeah, in our earlier stages, we were three guys wearing spandex pants and jumpsuits, but Triumph was a glam rock band per se. We really saw ourselves as a straightforward Canadian rock band. But we put on a big show and had all these special effects, so I think that lent itself to the glam side of things.

It sounds as if Triumph wasn’t exactly comfortable in the hair metal era…

Emmett: I’ll go back to the US Festival again. I remember when we got there, all these bands were on stage with leather pants, studs, and leather jackets, but it was like 95 degrees in the shade that day [laughs]. And I remember me, Gil, and Mike [Levine] looking at them, thinking, “Wow… that’s such a cliché.” We were never into any of that. But we did some of it, but I wouldn’t say we got deeply into it as it was what came naturally to us. Whereas for some bands, that was the whole thing. Some bands lived that life and it became their offstage lifestyle, but not ours.

From a guitar perspective, did you feel at home in the “shred era?”

Emmett: Seeing all those guys do that crazy stuff was crazy, and it did factor into my thinking a bit, but in the end, it didn’t change what I would do. It didn’t alter how I chose to execute my solos or riffs. I mean… I had a little shred in me, but that wasn’t what I was about. Because to me, being a great guitar player is about more than that. And if I look back to the late ’80s, I was hanging out with Steve Morse a lot, which is about as amazing as it gets when it comes to guitar.

So, there was no intimidation factor, then?

Emmett: No, I was confident in what I could do. But going back to Steve Morse, I remember being in the studio with him and thinking, “Oh, man, if only I could summon the kinds of chops that you have.” The talent that he had at his disposal was insane. He could write melodies and play with the best of them in his sleep. Seeing that made me realize, “Okay, the world is inhabited by Eddie Van Halen, George Lynch, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen, but there’s still more here.”

And if we go back even further to Randy Rhoads with Ozzy Osbourne, I realized, “Wow…. I am not even going to try to compete at this level.” So, a school of playing existed, where I was going, “Well, I’ve got to be aware of it,” while also understanding that it was important to retain what I was best at. My roots go back to Black Sabbath, Yes, Genesis, and Deep Purple, so that style always appealed to me much more than the shred era stuff. It was better for me to write my tunes and do what was best for my band than trying to compete with those other guys.

What do you feel is the definitive Triumph album?

Emmett: I know it’s not our most commercial album, but I always return to the Just a Game album from ’79. But if I had to pick the definitive one, I’d probably go with Allied Forces or Never Surrender. I still love so many of those tracks. But there were some latter-day moments from Thunder Seven, which were probably a little indulgent on my end, but I still enjoyed them.

But again, if we’re talking about when Triumph most hit its stride, that period just after Never Surrender is probably it. So, the two albums that led up to that [Allied Forces and Never Surrender] probably have the most magic within them. That was when we set aside the different directions we might have wanted to go in, came together, and harnessed what’s probably considered the band’s definitive sound.

In an era where more and more bands are getting back together, is a reunion in the cards for Triumph?

Emmett: I doubt it. I don’t think that Gill feels up to it. You have to remember that being a drummer is very hard, especially at a certain age. So, for him to get up there and go through that kind of aerobic workout… that would be a lot. Plus, he sings half the material, making it much harder. I just don’t think he’s got it’s not in his heart to want to chase that anymore. And Mike is getting up there, and he’s had some health issues over the last few years, too. Plus, I retired from the road even before COVID came, and I don’t think I’d ever want to get back out there, to be honest.

Do you feel Triumph missed its window to reunite?

Emmett: I’m not sure. But I do know that I don’t feel so compelled now. But having said that, I’m the type never to say never. I won’t categorically say, “A Triumph reunion will never happen,” but I’m not going to sit here and say it’s likely, either, because there was a time after I left Triumph in the ’80s when I didn’t talk to the guys for like twenty years. But then we came back together in 2008 and made amends.

We became friends again, which is something I thought would never happen. And that led us to use playing gigs, which I never thought would happen. And I remember that around that time, there was talk of us going out and touring again, but it didn’t happen. So, I think that was probably the time. I’d say it was more likely then than it is now. So, I won’t say never, but I’d say that it’s unlikely that Triumph will ever play live again.

Rik Emmett of Triumph: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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