By Martin Popoff
Canadian melodic hard rock icons Triumph have always had a flair for the dramatic.
From its stomping power ballads of hope to left-field blues songs and classical guitar showcases, and from its drummer singing half the tunes and its guitarist singing the rest impossibly highly, this was a power trio reaching to encompass the rock spectacle, subtleties be damned.
Put them on a stage, and things started exploding. Sure, pyro was a trademark of many an act in the ’70s and ’80s, but Triumph distinguished itself by playing the part of bombastic arena conquerors well before the band could afford it. In fact, Triumph made a concerted and successful effort to skip the opening act stage, moving straight from clubs to headline status, even if the occasional flashpot misfire was the price it paid.
Progressions Of Power, Allied Forces and Never Surrender marked the band’s peak in the early ’80s, with gold and platinum awards arriving on cue, not to mention a coveted spot at the massive US Festival on “Metal Day.” But poppy, panned albums in the mid-’80s gave way to acrimony and lawsuits, the band breaking up and never reforming.
That is, until now. Guitarist Rik Emmett, drummer Gil Moore and bassist Mike Levine agreed to reunite for a one-off show at the massive (and quite retro) Sweden Rock festival in early June, with sly hints of more to come arising from the cautious-yet-upbeat camp of three.
“I still won’t say it’s necessarily all together yet,” laughs Emmett, calling from a Toronto airport lounge, beer in hand, en route to a solo gig in Illinois. “It’s like an adventure that just moves along with little baby steps. I think it’s safe to say that, I mean, obviously the Hall Of Fame thing is going to happen (ed. Triumph was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame in April), and the Sweden show is going to happen. As those things happen to us, then the three guys have kind of decided that we’ll look back on those things and see how they feel, and then react appropriately and accordingly. There’s been a lot of talk about future shows into July, and then maybe some kind of a major tour to start Memorial Day weekend in 2009. I still think of all this as kind of talk. It’s all speculative, and who knows if it will all actually happen or not? But so far so good, I had a couple of rehearsals with Gil, and they went well; so yeah, it’s going good.”
I asked Rik what he noticed about playing with Gil for the first time.
“Well, I mean, he hasn’t been playing for 18 years (laughs),” says Emmett. “So, you know, to his credit, he’s been going to the Y, and he’s been doing some jogging, and he’s been working on his own. As both he and I stood there, we went, ‘You know, it’s not as horrible as we thought it might be.’ It was better than sort of worst expectations. Now, was it amazing? Well, no, but it was kind of amazing, and I think anybody who’s done these kind of reunion things, there’s the comment about this that, sometimes you are playing, and you can’t believe that you remember the arrangement as well as you actually do. Somehow, it’s almost like Alzheimer’s patients who sit down at a piano, and they can play pieces that they don’t even remember the name of, but they remember how the music went. So there is something about the human brain that is quite extraordinary. Then again, there are other moments where you go, yeah, that was a huge train wreck. We’re going to have to pull out the DVD/video — you know, the evidence from 1985 — and we’re going to have to consult with that to figure out what the hell we were doing coming out of the third verse of that song. But it’s a lot of fun, because you’re going from sort of amazing and wonderful, to a tragic, horrible, train crash.”
“We haven’t committed to North America yet,” adds Moore, owner of the respected Metalworks Studios where rehearsals are to take place. “We’re just taking it one step at a time. We wanted to play a show where we could kind of sequester away from all the family and business and everything in Canada, just go along with the wave, spend some time together traveling. We’re actually going to get there early and practice for a few days. It’s just kind of a big adventure, like that Chevy Chase movie, ‘Vacation,’ trying to approximate that here with the band.”
With respect to a set list, Moore figures that the band will be doing “a lot of songs that people would expect, songs like ‘Fight The Good Fight,’ ‘Magic Power,’ ‘Lay It On The Line,’ ‘Allied Forces’ and so on. But we’re also going to be rehearsing ‘Blinding Light Show,’ which we hadn’t played for years. That’s going to be a centerpiece in the set; that’s one fans have been writing about for years. And we played it in all our earlier tours, but we didn’t play it in the later tours. And also ‘I Live For The Weekend’ — we didn’t play that in any of our latter tours, so we’re trying to add that back to the set. So that would be the surprises.”
“I think Triumph really hit its stride in the Allied Forces period,” seconds Emmett. “So ‘Magic Power,’ ‘Fight The Good Fight,’ you know, I look forward to playing those. And I look forward to playing those with Mike and Gil. I think I’ll be choking back tears at certain times, because there is something sweet about doing that stuff. Those songs have sort of persisted, ‘Lay It On The Line’ especially. I just think that at the core of things in Triumph, we had some good songwriting. And good songs tend to live. They will find a way to survive. I was watching Canadian Idol last year; I got a phone call — ‘Quick, turn on the TV’ — and one of the contestants was singing ‘Lay It On The Line’ as they were auditioning their song. So sometimes a song at its core has a kind of honesty, a kind of a basic universal truth in it. Then that song has a chance to survive and live on and teach different generations as they come. So that is what I think is the secret behind some of that material. Certainly it surprises me, but people tell me this, that this is the reason why my kids like this music. I listened to it when I was a kid, and now I play it for my own kids — there are messages in it, and that sense of something real in it.”
I asked Rik if he was thinking of doing an acoustic showcase for the Swedish show. After all, Emmett is a respected jazz guitarist who has shown that card, as well as the classical one, periodically throughout the Triumph catalog and more so on his solo albums.
“Good question,” says Emmett. “I think there’s a chance that ‘Hold On’ might be done acoustically. Or maybe as a duo, if we have another sideman join us or not — Gil and I have talked about that. And I don’t know what will happen in terms of like a ‘Midsummer’s Daydream’ or something like that; depends on time. I think the Sweden time slot is only about 75 minutes, where you get to play maybe 60, or 65 and an encore, or 75 with a big bang at the end then we’re done. So it’s not a lot of time. It’s not like a headlining, 90-minute tour thing.”
Asked about the health of that soaring voice of his, Rik is confident — at least of his own abilities.
“Well, you know, I’ve been singing on the road for the last three decades (laughs). Gil hasn’t been singing for two decades. So I tell him, Gil, you’ll be fine the first 10 minutes of the first night. Whether or not you’re going to be fine for the back 20 minutes of the first night... one of the good things about Triumph is that we only have to sing half the stuff each. So it lessens the workload, and that’s a good thing. But the other thing I would say is… you know, Gil has no idea what it’s like to be in the back half of your 50s, trying to sing your third night in a week, out on the road. Like, that is really, really tough. And you have to employ a lot of wily craft to be able to get through that stuff. I don’t know if it’ll ever come to that with Triumph, that we will be doing three nights in a row, but I think he will be fine. He seems to be in pretty good health and in pretty good spirits. As for me, you know, I’m going to move the keys down on a couple songs, and change the arrangements around a little bit. I was very interested to see what Led Zeppelin did on their reunion tour. They tuned the guitars down a full step. And I thought, ‘OK, if they can get away with that and no one complains, I think there are things that we could do, too.’”
Adds Rik with a chuckle, asked about possible backroom machinations working on a real Triumph tour, “Oh, I think Gil has it in the back of his mind, for sure. But again, this becomes the difference between a projected maybe and what is a for sure? There’s lots of stuff you can project, and Gil has this new sound and light company and has access to some of the best light designer kind of guys, so I think he is going to be ready to go crazy, as soon as he sees a green light somewhere.”
Speaking of the mighty Zeppelin, I wondered if Gil has noticed that everything he’s been saying about the Triumph situation is exactly the way Zeppelin had cooled the brouhaha around their reunion — one show, then we’ll see, no tour formally planned etc…
“No, I didn’t know that!” remarks Moore. “Actually, other than knowing about the gig they played, I didn’t really read any of the press. I wasn’t really privy to what was said. Were they saying they just wanted to play one and have some fun? And then think about it later? For me personally, that’s what I would say. I’m tied up with the studio. What I’m doing here, I work with my daughter, so my priority is working with my daughter. I love what Metalworks is doing here. We have a school of students, a big production company that does live events, an award-winning studio, and I get to work with my daughter. What could be better than that? But the band is part of my life. I’m totally ecstatic that Rik and Mike and I are friends together. So my priority is to keep my friendship with Rik. I mean, I never lost it with Mike. But we had this period where we didn’t speak with Rik. I never want to see that happen again. I want this guy to be my pal until we’re no longer here. And so whatever it is that accomplishes that… right now, we’re having a good time. We’re playing some music, we’re having some laughs, and I just want to keep it that way. Maybe that’s the same thing with Led Zeppelin. Maybe it’s the same feeling; I’m not sure.
“The business has become a big machine,” reflects Moore in closing. “We’re out of it, and the business has been trying to get us back into it for years now, and we’re trying to be very careful that when we set foot back into it that we do it on our own terms. The good thing is, we don’t have anybody putting pressure on us, and we have an agent that we really like, who’s been with us for years and years and years, who is more like a friend. We’ve got two agents like that, actually, one Canadian and one American, I should say. And the relations we have with labels now are completely different; the labels that we are working with, they’re really pals. You know, when you’re a young band, you have pressure to put out an album every year. There’s no plans for us to even record. I don’t say that we’re not going to do that ever, but we’re just trying to have some fun, and really take it as an adventure. We’re not too wrapped up in the way we were when we were starting out, where you’ve got your hopes and dreams pinned on it. Right now it’s more like… we want to do something fun, maybe repay the fans something we feel we owe them. They are so, so loyal — why wouldn’t we play for them? It’s almost like not playing for them, you’re stealing that opportunity or that feeling or that connection that they want — you’re stealing that from them. It’s almost a bit of a guilt meter thing that is going hey, you really owe these people something.”