Rik Emmett lays it on the line
It was an eerie, almost surreal moment for this former entertainment reporter. Thursday afternoon I sat in on a band rehearsal, watching one of Canada’s rock elite playing with some local rockers – and I had connections with both.
I first met local rock band Gemini in the mid-1980s, while working the arts and entertainment beat for The Newfoundland Herald. The band, comprising twin brothers Barry and Ken Fowler, and drummer Sonny Hogan, were just teenagers at the time.
Ten years before that, I was a young turk running amok in the streets of Toronto, taking in bands like Max Webster, Moxy and a young, brash, incredibly talented band named Triumph.
Call it weird synergy, a kind of personal coincidence, but on Friday night both groups will be fused into one for a concert at the Delta Ballroom. Rik Emmett’s machine features Rick Emmett, the former guitarist with Triumph, his duo partner Dave Dunlop on guitar, as well as local group Abbey Road – which includes the three former members of Gemini, plus Greg Gill on lead vocals and Terry Fogwill on keyboards and synthesizer.
The players first connected in March of 2012 in a fundraiser for Dana Cox, a cancer patient who was working to record her music. Emmett performs a lot of benefit concerts and was happy to sign up for this one, with Abbey Road as backing band. But Emmett was in for a surprise with vocalist Greg Gill, who can do an uncanny, hair-raising duplication of Rik’s distinctive, high-pitched vocal style.
“Last year, I didn’t know what to expect,” Emmett said, in an interview. “But when we got out to rehearsal I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be great, this is going to be easy. All I have to do is kind of stand there and smile! I’ll just play guitar. I might ghost him from time to time but essentially I’m going to let him hit the high notes.’ But seriously, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The 2012 show went so well that the Fowler brothers worked to organize another, longer concert for Friday, February 8 (for which some tickets are still available). The opening act will be local group Timber, who released a couple of great albums in 1998 and 2000 before going into extended hiatus.
Triumph, for those who weren’t around back then, was a genuine Canadian supergroup, with a string of hit records in Canada and the United States – songs like “Somebody’s Out There”, “Hold On”, “Magic Power”, “Never Surrender”, “Lay It On the Line”, “Fight the Good Fight”, “A World of Fantasy” and more. The band split up in 1988 in a cloud of acrimony, though Emmett said “fences were mended” with former bandmates Mike Levine and Gil Moore for a 2008 reunion show. But essentially, Emmett has been a solo act for 25 years.
In the post-Triumph years he has released 17 albums that explore a kaleidoscope of musical styles, including rock, jazz, swing, classical, Latin and more. Emmett said it was liberating to pursue his own interests, outside of the band construct.
“I’m at that age and stage where, when things are presented to me and opportunities arise, I’m more inclined to say yes, let’s give this a go … I’ve spent a lot of time in my life where you’re locked into a thing you’re doing and have to be this person who fits into this image or whatever, and then nobody offers you anything where you step out of that… I think it was more a question of wanting to challenge myself and do different things and play a lot of different music in a lot of different circumstances.”
Emmett has built a strong web presence at www.rikemmett.com, a site with the usual biography, list of recordings, photos and online music store. But it also offers Rik Radio, a constant – and free – stream of music from Emmett’s impressive library of recordings. Even more unusual is a members only forum which, for $35 a year, gives fans direct access to the star.
“It’s been that way almost from day one,” Emmett said. “The way the whole fan thing started for me was even before the Internet, I had a mail order thing set up. My mom and dad had this card system and to try to get them to convert to computers when computers were starting to happen was just foreign to them… We would literally stuff envelopes and the kids would help with that… Around ‘95 or ‘96 I had people approaching me saying I’d like to run your official website but I was not going to give up control… though I was willing to allow them to start it up with my sanction to see how it goes. I soon realized that there was a value attached to this. It became evident especially with (file sharing site) Napster that the world was going to change. People could just get music for free and the bottom was dropping right out of the way copyright was valued, so I said let’s just see if this can be established in a way that doesn’t cost me anything.
“All along the way you have people barking in your ear that we should do official Rik Emmett t-shirts, coffee mugs, coasters, but that’s a lot of bullshit… My thinking was, what is it the Internet can provide for loyal fans that is of true value? There are some things, like getting front of the line for tickets, but I don’t think that’s the real value that people want. The real value becomes access. So from day one I’ve had a members’ forum, message board kind of thing where people post questions and comments. Things like, ‘Hey Rik, what did you mean when you wrote this in this song in 1979?’ and ‘Hey Rik, what did you have for breakfast?’ And I answer those emails. I go on the forum and give people that kind of access.
“Part of this is because I am a college professor and have a pedantic nature – this is not going to be some kind of bullshit, meet and greet, shallow thing. If somebody has a question that has some substantial teeth in it, I’ll answer it and I’ll be honest. And I try to get them into the dynamics of what it’s like to actually be a celebrity, and what it was like back in the day when guys would literally come and stalk around my house and look in windows. What people want is some insight into what it’s like to lead a creative life where you have some celebrity aspect to it, and it’s not going to be trumped up bullshit. They’re going to get a real insight. Presumably, what you’ve done (by charging for access) is weeded out the ones who are not serious about it and getting the ones who are actually really interested in who you are and what you do. For example, a couple of days ago I was working on a lyric and posted up the lyric and talked about the process of how I was writing it. So it’s not just a sneak preview, they’re actually getting a look into the creative process. I see it as a core value of what the web site is supposed to be.”
Emmett was surprised when I told him about my own experiences in Toronto in 1975, arriving early at Larry’s Hideway in order to get a table in front of the stage. They were a cover band then, just venturing into original music in preparation for their debut album, released in 1976.
“I’ve been reading a book I got for Christmas about The Beatles, and how they would make a whole album in a day. That was how it worked back then. We made that album for about 12 grand and finished, mixed and mastered it in a week. In those days, there was no messing around. We were just a bar band getting a kick at the can. You set up, played it live off the floor, threw a couple of overdubs on it, then moved on to the next song because you weren’t going to spend a lot of money. So it had a rawness to it, a real straightforward kind of honesty. Obviously later on, when we built the Metalworks Studio and had more time, the recordings became a lot more involved and you saw yourself competing against all the rest of the best stuff that’s ever been. But when you’re making your first record you’re holding on by your fingernails.
“The funny thing about chasing commercial success, or celebrity, is there’s always been a part of me where I thought, ‘Oh you fraud, you. How lucky are you that you’ve been able to trick people all these years.’ And I mean, in the early days, you’re doing it and the odds are against you, you realize that you’re just taking a chance and rolling dice. The agreement that we had between the three of us in the early days, was that if we were going to do this, let’s really do it. Let’s not do it half ass, let’s do it whole ass. And let’s have fun. Let’s really go for it and not have any regrets about what we were doing.”
Emmett said the band took a lot of flack from critics for its onstage pyrotechnics, but he makes no apologies for that.
“(We were) a band that blew a lot of stuff up, had lasers and flamethrowers. But we always said ‘No, we may not be the best musicians on planet Earth but we’re going to put on a show and people are going to have a lot of fun. When they come to our show people are going to say they got their money’s worth.’ And we weren’t going to be a band that tried to sell fashion or tried to sell how cool we were, like we didn’t want to have to play on that level. We thought it was much more show business than that. Certainly that’s where Gil was coming from.
“And talking about specific memories, Gil love special effects. And on the front lawn of his house, he wanted to see if you could inflate a balloon with a lot of propane in it and then explode the balloon so you’d have a ball of fire. He did this on his front lawn. And he blew the picture window right out of his home. Neighbours came out, shook their heads, and said ‘Yup, that Gil Moore is at it again.’ I look back on it now, at the folly of youth. I mean, how foolish and dangerous was that? Yeah, those were the days.”
All of Triumph’s hit songs – at least, those written by Emmett – have positive, inspirational, motivational messages at their core. I asked if this was a reflection on his own personal value system.
“Well, you know, if you were to interview my wife, she would say ‘He’s a cynical bastard. He’s sarcastic.’ And I think the truth is that people who lead creative lives, artistic lives, show business kinds of lives, they tend to be more mercurial than the average person. Their highs are higher, lows are lower and they tend to be dramatic people. They may not necessarily be full-blown divas, but they do tend to be extravagant emotionally. So my family realizes that this is what Dad is like and they have to put up with it, tolerate it and stuff. And then when it comes time to put on your brave face and go out and do your job… As I said, I’ve been reading this Beatles stuff, and I’ve always tended to be more of a Paul McCartney kind of guy than a John Lennon kind of guy. I just felt like it was my job to try to make people feel happier or better about this gift of life that we have. It’s a pretty short dance we get on this little blue ball circling around the sun, and in that respect I don’t gravitate toward religious kinds of things but I do think that on a spiritual level everybody goes ‘Well what’s this all about? Why are we here?’ And I think in the end, you kind of have to say, ‘I don’t know but while I’m here, let’s make some music, let’s have some fun, crack a joke, paint a picture, write a book – let’s be creative about this because that’s the opportunity that we have. So that’s the brave face that I choose to try to give to an audience. Yeah, I have predicated a large chunk of my career on that. Having said that, can I write a sad song? Oh yeah. Can I write something kind of dark and pessimistic and angry? Yes, sure I can… and I have. But do I lean on it? Do I think that should be the main thrust of what I do? No. And why am I coming down to play with the Fowler Brothers? Because they like that guy who wrote “Fight the Good Fight”, “Magic Power”, “Lay it on the Line, and “Never Surrender”. That’s the guy they admire, the guy they like, so I’m not going to screw with that. I’m going to build on that and work with that. And that’s the way I saw it back in the day.
“When I joined Triumph, Gil and Mike had already picked out the name… and they showed me posters with a devil’s head and horns and fire. I said, okay, I guess in the early stages this is what we’re going to use, but boys we’re going to have to change this because you’re calling the band ‘Triumph.’ You’re going to have to live up to that name. If you’re going to call your band Triumph, it had better be about the triumph of the human spirit. It has to tie itself into that or else it’s misnamed. I think the other guys caught onto that and certainly by the time we got to the “Just a Game” album, with “Lay It On the Line”, which was about “just give me the truth, the truth will do just fine,” that was kind of like the bottom line, this is where we start from. The next song was “Hold On” (to your dreams) and it was like, ‘Now we’re locked in.’ The path was laid out.”
Does Emmett ever grow weary of playing those hits from the 1980s?
“No, I think they’re still pretty good songs – though I do wish I had the range that I used to have. It’s like, why didn’t I cut this in a lower key? What was I thinking, that I was going to live forever and my voice wasn’t going to get tired and low and smoky? Why didn’t I sing like Tom Waits right from day one? No, my voice hasn’t changed completely, but I turned 60 this year so it’s not the same thing as when you’re 22 years old, full of piss and vinegar and thinking you were going to live forever. ‘Yeah, I can sing higher than Robert Plant!’ I look at it now and go ‘What an idiot. What a stupid young idiot.’ I just have to transpose the songs down several keys, tune my guitar down a little bit, and tighten my underwear.”
Emmett is exaggerating here. His voice is still rich and resonant in the middle and slightly higher registers – he just can’t hit the soaring peaks he did as a young fellow, and those are gaps that Greg Gill can fill more than capably.
Having sat in for the rehearsal of several songs, I can say with confidence that this will be a rocking good show – a must-see for anyone with fond memories of ‘80s hard rock.