RIK EMMETT (TRIUMPH): “STEVE HOWE, The Guy Who Co-Wrote Tales From Topographic Oceans, Told Me That I Went Off The Deep End”

Rik Emmett

As lead guitarist and vocalist with Canadian Rockers Triumph, Rik Emmett sold millions of albums and played to sold out crowds drawn in by an impressive catalogue of songs, top notch musicianship and a dazzling stage show. After leaving Triumph over 30 years ago Emmett has been busy releasing a string of rich and varied albums. Mick Burgess called him up to talk about his solo career since leaving Triumph and the recent reissue of 11 of his solo records.

We’re in the middle of rather strange times at the moment. How are things for you over in Canada at the moment?

We’ve been locked down like everybody else and where I live, which is Burlington, which is a western city satellite of Toronto, we’re at stage 3. In this Province they’ve done a good job in limiting the spread and have limited the number of people actually ending up in hospital with it. The hardest thing for me is my 92-year-old Dad is in a home and that became a real focus early on with all of the cases in retirement homes. My Dad has a bit of dementia so that’s an issue and I couldn’t even get into see him for a while but thankfully now we can and we can pick him up, take him out to lunch and bring him to our house. So, it’s not so bad for me but I have concerns for my Dad as he’s in that vulnerable group.

How has Covid 19 impacted on you personally and from a musical point of view?

I’m going through this weird surreal time of my life when I have records coming out and PR guys setting up interviews and I’m on Zoom and phone calls all over the world. I’ve got my own music coming off my own website and I have just delivered a book of poetry to the publisher and that may come out next year. So there’s all of this stuff going on from a creative point of view that is kind of like the Covid thing hasn’t done anything to my career and if anything my career is enjoying something of a renaissance.

What were you up to just before Covid hit?

For me, part of my life for a couple of decades, I was an academic teaching at a college and at weekends I’d be a weekend warrior touring and playing gigs. This whole thing of Zoom allows me to do workshopping and teaching song writing and I’m going to be doing one of these Rock ‘n’ Roll master classes so it’s been an interesting thing and when door closes another opens.

You’ve recently issued 11 albums from your back catalogue solo albums. Why have you decided to do this at this point?

It just happened. Roundhill Records had just done the Triumph catalogue and Banger Films are doing the Triumph the Documentary and Roundhill are involved in that. We were at the Walk of Fame thing here in Canada with the guy from Roundhill who said that I had all of this back catalogue of my own and he said he’d like to make me an offer and put it out. I’m probably riding on the coat tails of the Triumph thing but I’m happy to do that.

Is this a digital only release or will there be CD’s and maybe vinyl to follow?

This is a litmus test. It’s been put it out digitally as it’s relatively quick and easy to do that then we’ll see if there’s enough of a response and decide whether we should do vinyl and CD’s.

That’s most of your solo collection but omits a few including the first three you did after leaving Triumph. Why did you leave those out of the reissue series?

First of all, I don’t own them. The masters are owned by a company in Canada that’s gone bankrupt so the easy thing to do for me was to give Roundhill the albums that I owned as they wanted the publishing and the masters. There were about 7 or 8 that were relatively clean and simple and they were mine 100% and they bought my share of those that were partnered with Dave Dunlop and Mike Shotton, they were the Airtime record and the three Strung-Out Troubadour records so that is the extent of what they’ve done so far. There are still some records that I’d done with cover songs on them and the first three that I did when I first left Triumph. They are still lying around so there may be more archaeological digging to come or they might go that that was an interesting experiment but we’re going to move on now.

Were there any more albums that were part of your Roundhill Records deal?

They made the deal for 13 albums and one of them is a Christmas record but I don’t think July is a good time to put out a Christmas record. I thought they might want to hold back on that one. There was also one I did with Oscar Lopez and Pablo and it was a guitar trio thing and those guys own two-thirds of that so they only got my one third of that so I said to Roundhill that they might run into a wall while trying to get rights from those guys so maybe they might want to leave that one out of the pack for now so that’s why they put out the 11 albums that they did.

Many people know you from your time in Triumph and those classic Hard Rock albums and incredible live shows but did you see your solo career as allowing you a completely free hand to tackle so many different styles of music that we can hear on these solo albums?

Yes and no. When I initially left Triumph there was pressure from managers, agents and record companies. They didn’t want me to betray the market that I’d already built up. Eventually over time, that didn’t matter to me as much anymore. By 1996 I was going to have my own independent label and my own recording studio in my own basement. I was paying for the manufacturing too, so I wanted to make the records that I always wanted to make. I’d always wanted to do a Classical record on nylon string guitars so that was the first record I did. The next one was all Swing, smooth Jazzy kind of stuff. The third one was all Blues, like Clapton’s Beano album that I cut my teeth on when I was 14 or 15 years old. By the time I’d done 3 or 4 records I realised that I was making my money back on these things and that I could move on and do another one so I did a singer-songwriter record and then started looping back. I was getting air play from some of the Smooth Jazz radio stations in Canada so I thought I’d make another one of those because that was fun. So, I became more self-indulgent as time went on. I was able to do that as I’d built up enough of a fanbase to be to carry me. The only thing that made me think of slowing down was that I was getting older and tired of having to chase America and climb on aeroplanes and travelling to hotels all the time. I guess I just wanted to spend more time sitting around the pool with my grandkids.

Did you form your own label to do this?

Yes, I thought I’d set up my own little independent label to set up distribution deals so that I could get manufacturing done in house. At first, I was completely independent then I started to make deals with EMI here in Canada so they were my manufacturer and distributor. Then I moved from them to Universal for a while and then I took on a manufacturer to make enough that I could sell them off the stage. I wasn’t worried if they were in bricks and mortar retailers as we weren’t selling many there anyway. As there was more and more downloading and the world became more digital, I was less and less in the mainstream anyway and I was just putting them out on my website anyway. I’d manufacture up small batches and do them mail order. I had someone fulfill that for me so I didn’t really need an established distributor. It was really just a Mom and Pop operation and I was perfectly happy and making my money back and a little profit. I wasn’t really in it to make a profit from recordings but I was making a decent living playing gigs and selling some records. Of course, I still have income from Classic Rock radio airplay so there was enough for me to go, so yes, this was a nice life.

After having a major label behind you for years, was it quite a daunting step striking out on your own or was it quite liberating?

It was a little bit of both. It’s liberating in the sense that you are your own boss and you make your own decisions but the big challenge is that there’s not enough hours in the day to do everything, so time management becomes crucial and how are you going to cover everything when really the number one priority is to be creative and you need time and energy to do that and if you’re having to do a lot of administration. When I did the Airtime record with Mike Shotton and the Troubadours record, I had to account to everybody every quarter. You have to track the number of downloads and find out how many pieces of pie were sold this quarter so that’s the thing that is too daunting. I didn’t like having to do the administration and accounting. The great thing about the Roundhill deal is that I can drop all that now and they’ll handle that side of things.

Do you have your own studio?

I have one down in my basement that I call the Rocket Lab because my nickname is Rocket so it seemed appropriate. I go down there with a load of mic’s and a heavy-duty computer system so that I can record my ideas. I also have an open invitation from Gil Moore who I was with in Triumph and he has the Metalworks studio and he said anytime I want to come in and use his studio I can and it won’t cost me anything which was a lovely thing for him to do. I don’t think about recording as much. I did an album for Mascot Provogue a while ago that’s not part of the Roundhill deal as that is Mascot’s. They paid me a good production budget to do it and I was happy to do it but I felt like that was the last Rock record that I was going to make and unless someone comes along and drops six figures in my lap and that doesn’t happen very often in the music business these days, the I think I’ll just continue to make humble little recordings and offer them as downloads from my site.

It sounds like the perfect set-up?

I’m very lucky to be able to do this. I’m blessed. I’ve got this creative life that I’ve always wanted and it’s still going on even though I don’t go on tour. I can find an audience and an audience can find me if they want to so that’s great. I actually did a book of poetry but I thought nobody would be interested but because I had a name and used to be in a Rock band now there’s a flurry of interest going on. I shopped my poetry book around and publishers came back and offered me a deal. It’s actually the writing that I enjoy the most. There’s no pressure on me and if I don’t want to do it I don’t and I can take the dog for a walk instead. It’s all turned out pretty good.

Your daughter, Shannon adds some keyboards to a couple of songs on Ten Inventions, your Classical guitar record. That must have been a proud moment for you as a father to record something with her?

I was so pleased. It worked out fantastic. She was a flute major at university and is a High School music teacher now she also plays flute on the Good Faith album on a song called “Way Back Home”. That was even more amazing. I wrote that so the guitar and flute would have a lot of interplay. She’s played some gigs with me where she’s played keyboards and that’s been a lovely thing in my life for sure.

Swing Shift that came out only a few months later is as different again being in a more Jazzy Swing style. Were you writing the material for both of these albums at the same time or did you do Ten Invitations first then start Swing Shift from scratch straight after?

The first three I did when I went independent, Ten Invitations, Swing Shift and Raw Quartet, I was writing all of that stuff at the same time. I then separated them out to suit each of the different albums. That formed in my mind as I was doing them. I was just learning how to use my own studio so it was easier to finish the Classical guitar one and learn about editing and mastering. The Jazz one required a little more rhythm section stuff and with Raw Quartet I had a cable running out of the window to the drums in the garage so I could separate the bass from the drums properly. It was all interesting and crazy. It was good.

You won a Canadian Smooth Jazz Award for this album. After all of your success with Triumph this must have been a very special moment to be recognised for your music beyond the band?

It’s lovely to get a validation for doing things that are not necessarily about market impact. Rock had 30% to 40% of the marketplace at one time and Rap and Hip Hop has eaten away at the market that Rock ‘n’ Roll used to have. When you make a Jazz record you’re appealing to maybe 2 or 3% and even of that small percentage many will just go out and buy a Miles Davis album or something if they are hip. If you are a new Jazz artist you’ll not sell a lot of records but that’s not the point. It was something I just wanted to do but it’s nice when something happens. If you’ve looked at my career over the years I don’t always do something that’ll be an easy sell. So, I’m making a choice that’s a more self-indulgent one. Do I care if I win an award or make the Top Ten Critic’s Choice or something? It’s lovely when that happens but I don’t really do it so I can have people patting me on the back, telling me how great that I am but I do love it when people say that they enjoy my music. The thing is once I make a record, I just want to move on to the next one. It’s just the natural flow of the way my life works that by the time a record is out and people are listening to it I want to move on. I don’t sit around and listen to my own records. I don’t live in that reality as I’m slowly, surely and steadily moving ahead. It’s nice to win awards but I didn’t do it for that. I did it so that I can move onto the next thing.

You even got accolades from George Benson. Getting praise from one of the genres greats must be such an incredible endorsement for you?

That’s huge. That’s the sort of thing I look back on and think, did that really happen? It was incredible when he got up on stage and played with me.

Your first live solo album, Live At Berklee, captured something of a rather special show. This show was actually promoted and funded by your fans through your website. Who came up with that idea?

When the whole internet thing started taking off fans had offered to set up my website. I wasn’t sure about giving them control over it but thought if they could put it together and run it for me but under my management and direction that would be great. I started looking around and I saw that Patrick Moraz, who played keyboards in Yes, his brother did a thing where you could book Patrick to play keyboards for you. I thought that I could do that and set that up off my site. I had to make sure there was a certain level of security built in to the way the deal was going to be struck and had to have a road manager with me to look after things and make sure some crazy lady from Pittsburgh wasn’t going to jump my bones. We started to build things where fans would put on shows. There were two guys in the Boston area, Pete Chestner and Dan Bolton and they both wanted to do a show so I suggested they partnered up and find a place. They suggested Berklee College. I thought that sounded like opportunity knocking so I thought I’d bring an 8-track in and record a live album. I tell my students that selling music off your website is like running a bakery. You have to get up early every morning and bake new things every day so when you are selling music from your website, you have to keep coming up with fresh stuff. We did the Berklee thing and it ended up being kind of nice as I left a lot of the intro’s and interaction with the crowd on the recordings and people kind of like that and enjoyed the stories.

Was it a subscriber’s event only or was it open to the public too?

These guys were the promoters and would sell tickets. As the internet had grown so big by then, people flew in from Brazil and all over the place because they thought it was going to be a special show. We did two nights in the Recital Hall and there were only about 100 seats so it was very intimate. We sold out both nights and it was a great event.

You were able to showcase songs from your trilogy but also a few new songs too. Did you write these specifically for this show?

Yes, I sure did. Once we knew we were doing a live album I wanted to have some fresh stuff on there so it wasn’t just a recycling of old stuff. Part of it too was that people still want to hear the old Triumph stuff and the evergreen songs but I wasn’t going to include that on a live album where I wanted to be controlling all of the publishing so I thought I’d better come up with some new material. I went through my notes and created some new songs and backing tracks as I do both acoustic and electric on that show.

Handiwork seemed to combine the Jazz elements of Swing Shift and the more classical feel of Ten Invitations. Was that the original idea here to combine the best of both of those styles into something slightly different?

Yes and no because Handiwork and Good Faith were being done at the same time so it was case that the instrumental stuff was shifting over to Handiwork and I was already starting to see airplay for from Smooth Jazz radio stations in Canada so I thought Handiwork would hit them right in their wheel house. Then Good Faith is me indulging myself as a singer-songwriter. I was a little more confident about what I could do in my home studio and I had more guest artists come in like Jane Bunnett who came in and played some soprano sax stuff and Bob Rice came in and played some flugelhorn and trumpet. They were done around the same time so I put one out and a few months later put the other one out.

Strung-Out Troubadours saw you join up with Dave Dunlop from The Full Nine to produce an Americana Roots album built on some great vocal harmonies. When did you first meet Dave?

Dave was the guitar player in my touring Rock band. While all this stuff is going on with my albums, I’m still going out and playing gigs, some of them Rock band gigs. When I do the acoustic shows, like the one I did at Berklee, I usually do them solo by myself. There were some gigs where I’d take out a piano player and I’d do that with Marty Anderson. I was getting to the point where I thought I wanted a guitar player to come out so I could Rock a little bit more and I wanted someone who could sing a little better than Marty. Dave was a logical choice for that and he took it over and Marty didn’t do it anymore. One thing led to another and I thought we should do a record we could sell at the merch table as people were enjoying Dave as much as they were enjoying me. I liked the idea of throwing it over to him to play the solo so it really grew with Dave and me and it was good that he’d also get something from selling the album at shows too. We ended up doing three records together.

Live at Hugh’s Room captures you both live featuring songs from the album you did together as well as some from your back catalogue. Did having Dave with you enable you to perform some songs live that you hadn’t been able to do before?

Yes, it did and I loved it. The great thing about Hugh’s Room is that it was only about five blocks from where I grew up so it was my old neighbourhood so I felt like it was a cool thing to do. It was the premier Folk room in the Toronto area and a lot of touring acts play there as well as locals so I liked that. So, Dave and I played there and I had Steve Skinley come in and he recorded the night. Unfortunately, it’s closed down now as the owner went bankrupt then a non-profit board took it over then the landlord raised the rent so much that they couldn’t afford to keep it open so it’s kind of heart-breaking.

Liberty Manifesto was done under the name Airtime and sees you Rocking harder than you had in years. Did it feel good cranking up the guitar again?

I could have lived without it. My friend Mike Shotton was so gung-ho and he’d been in a band called Von Groove. He said that we had to do a Rock record together and he was really a cheer leader and promoter trying to get it done. I knew someone who’d give me a European record deal and knew people in Japan and I could get a deal there too. We were able to get our money back. Mike was the king of Pro Tools and there was a lot of layering going on there, of vocals and electric guitars, so it was a big record in terms of sound and production with Hard Rock and Progressive undertones so I got it out of my system.

Push and Pull was a return to Dave Dunlop and The Strung-Out Troubadours. You’d done the First Troubadours album together and played some live shows. Did that experience embolden you to expand the concept into more of a full band and broaden the musical horizons at the same time?

A little bit but more to the point it was Smooth Jazz radio were looking for something that had more of a rhythm track vibe to it so that’s where we decided to go so we could hit that thing right in the guts. It’s a shame that the Smooth Jazz station where I lived changed over to Country almost overnight. Well, so much for that. I enjoyed making those records with Dave no matter what. The great thing about these records are if I felt like doing it, I just did.

The last of your 11 reissues is 2012’s Marco’s Secret Songbook. This is a really ambitious project based around a story. What is the gist of the story?

I’d made the acquaintance of Steve Howe from Yes who is a role model and hero of mine. I’d sent him an email because I was singing in a show, which was like an opera based on Frankenstein and I was singing in the role of the Captain. It entailed me coming on at the start of the show, singing for a bit then going back into the dressing room for an hour and a half waiting for the end of the show and I came out, did 5 minutes and then the Monster dies. I was like the bookend at the beginning and end of the show. So, I was sitting back stage and cooking up the idea of two brothers who travelled the world and discovered all sorts of different styles of music. It’s almost like they’re sending musical postcards to each other. So, I was really excited by this concept so I sent an email to Steve Howe and asked him if he wanted to do this. He replied and said he thought I’d really gone off the deep end and he didn’t want to do it. I thought, wow, the guy who co-wrote Tales From Topographic Oceans told me that I went off the deep end. I had four or five things on the go at the time that I thought would fall right into this. It opened up the possibility of being able to do lots of different styles of things. I have it so the main guy is called Marco after Marco Polo and he’s kicked out of his family home as he’s not playing the Classical music that his family has made its reputation on. So, he goes all over the world, has all sorts of adventures and discovers new music and he ends up back home coming full circle. I wanted to keep it pretty simple but I got Mike Shotton involved as my engineer and producer and Mike, he dreams big so I’d play a tune and come back a week later and find he’d put sax’s on it and stand-up bass and I’d say “Mike, it was just supposed to be guitar and voice” and he’d say “Yeah, but doesn’t it sound great?” He was right, it did sound great. We also got a strings program for the computer so we could put strings on these things and orchestra shots and it got bigger and bigger. Then we needed somebody to be narrator and we got Tony Daniels, the voice of CBC in Canada, he grew up in my neighbourhood and we’ve known each other for years. Then my old pal Richard Evans, he plays underscore stuff for the narration bits. Before we knew it, we had this gigantic Moody Blues record. That’s not how we planned it when we started out but that’s how it ended up.

How long did it take to get the story in place and then fit the music to the story?

It took a year on and off. I was going out and playing gigs and there may have also been other recordings going on at the same time. This Marco thing was something that Shotton and I were doing part-time but, in the end, I just wanted to get it finished and get it done and over with.

Your Triumph bandmate Gil Moore was involved in the project too. What was his contribution.

We went to Gil’s studio to master the album. He has a mastering suite in Metalworks. We’d mixed it ourselves but took it to Metalworks to master it. It was very complicated as it had spoken word sections as well as the songs and I wanted certain things to cross fade so mastering that was very complex.

It could almost be the accompaniment to a Disney animated story. Would you like to put some visuals to the story at some point?

The way I originally envisaged it, was that it could be turned into a stage production, like a music theatre kind of thing where you need a great singer/guitar guy to do it but I wouldn’t want to do it. Back in day I loved it when Pete Townsend would think creatively more like a music theatre type of experience but that’s pretty ambitious pie in the sky way of thinking about this. I’d been hired to sing in this Frankenstein thing so I was in a very music theatre frame of mind but that’s pretty expensive to put something together like that and that’s another reason why I was losing heart a bit. I’d dreamed awful big but decided to return to a more modest kind of thing.

You’ve covered so many styles of music over those albums, is there anywhere you haven’t been yet that you’d like to tackle at some point?

Not really no. I think I’ll do more of the same but with less pressure. I can go down into my basement and record when I want. I’ve got the poetry book too and when that comes out, I may do an audio version of it, maybe with a little music in it. James Taylor did that with his book. I like the way he used little musical vignettes to take you from chapter to chapter. I get up every day and make notes in my note book. I write every day and I blog on my website. I’ve got a friend who has booked me to do a Country session soon and I love that kind of stuff. Things like that come along and they’re fun. I’m not going to plan on doing them but if they drop in my lap then I might give it a shot.

Looking to the future what have you got lined up for the coming months and into next year musically?

I might do a Bonfire Sessions Part 2 as I enjoyed that and thought it turned out pretty good. I’ve got 3 or 4 songs done and when I get to 10 or 12 I’ll think about doing another one or maybe not. The publisher is also asking about a memoir/biography and if I do that, I imagine it’ll eat up a lot of time and energy.

We haven’t seen you in the UK since the early ’80s with Triumph. Do you think you’ll make it over here to play some music at some point in the future?

I think my touring days are over now. It’s been a lifetime since I’ve been to the UK. If something came up where it would be a more intimate kind of thing in a smaller place where I could sit down on a stool for half the show then it’s possible that I’d consider something. The whole idea of having to gear up to tour, getting work visas, hiring site men and rehearsing, that’s an awful lot of work.

Interview By Mick Burgess


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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