Is there life after Rock ‘n’ Roll?
Is there life after Rock ‘n’ Roll? Rik Emmett never questioned it. After leaving Triumph in 1988 he embarked on a successful solo career which touched on different genre of Rock, Blues, Jazz and Smooth Jazz.
John Beaudin – I remember hearing James Taylor say years ago that he was so tired of playing “Fire & Rain,” that he actually considered leaving music. He eventually came to terms with it saying it just came with the job. Have you come to terms with the fact that fans will always ask you why you left Triumph or if the band has a reunion around the corner?
Rik Emmett – I had a lot of ‘coming to terms’ that I had to do when I left Triumph in 1988. It took years to try and get out from under a lot of baggage. You can’t escape the reality of being the soundtrack to some people’s lives. They have a great deal emotionally invested in trying to keep their own history, their own myth, a vitally important thing. Sometimes, it’s all out of proportion but most of the time it’s relatively cool to deal with .You tell folks you’ll indulge their need for nostalgia, if they’ll return the favor and indulge my need to indulge an ongoing artistic and creative lifestyle. Who knows? Both indulgences might be inappropriate but everybody’s got a right to dream and to reminisce.
John – Well, congrats on taking the high road on that whole Triumph thing. We’ve all heard the metaphor that leaving a band is like a divorce and in your case you were divorcing two people and god knows how many more people behind the scenes. I always say that you can tell a lot more about a person during a breakup than when they were in the actual relationship.
Rik – I have a new song for a new singer/songwriter CD that I’m working on. The singer/songwriter CD called “Good Faith,” is going to take a lot longer to finish with spring and summer touring etc. Anyhow, I digress, the song is called “The Way Back Home,” and the lyric in the chorus goes:
There’s a path that can climb every mountain
As you challenge the great unknown.
Take the high road and make each step your own.
Then you’ll know the way…back…home.
The high road isn’t necessarily some holier-than-thou place. It’s just a quick, easy metaphor for the place that makes you feel better about yourself and who you are. In the end if you walk the walk, your
walk, at least you’ll know who you are, where you’re at and how to find your way back home. (The old trail of breadcrumbs theory.) Being in the partnership known as Triumph I was being asked, required, subtly and unsubtly pressured more and more to be someone that I didn’t like very much. Fourteen years after the breakup I still regularly have to redefine myself for people in light of the person I was when I was in that public relationship. I’ve been doing a fair bit of working, living and road walking since I was that guy.
John – Interestingly though it was that guy that introduced me some good music in the 70’s but I hear what your saying. Let’s finish up with the Triumph question. “Just a Game” was my favorite Triumph CD. What album stood out for you?
Rik – I really liked the B-side of that one, it had its moments. I also thought that “Allied Forces” was perhaps the album that had the strongest collection of material and the band reaching its potential.
“Thunder Seven” had a few moments but no complete album stands out for me. My spirit is still a little too restless for that kind of myth making yet.
John – Without overstating the obvious, this was a brave thing you did by leaving. I know relations within the band were awful but did any of the friends around you at the time tell you that it was nuts and not to leave?
Rik – Sure, but friends also said that I gotta do what I gotta do and that this was my decision. To be honest, it was just such an unhappy situation and such an untenable one from the point of view of writing songs, continuing to try and make recordings and trying to play live concerts. The decision to leave wasn’t so much brave as it was obvious, necessary and completely logical. I mean my former partners from the old camp can spin it any way they want but forget the people politics and just look at the cold hard business reality, Triumph had run its course. The records weren’t selling, the record company had lost faith and we were high hundreds of thousands if not over a million dollars unrecouped. A lot of the U.S. concert promoters had been burned out on stiff dates and the band had a large debt to the U.S. merch company for advances it had not recouped on the last U.S. tour. Cue Annie Lennox “This boat is sinking, this boat is sinking.” If it was nuts to leave, then how come I’m still managing to cobble together a fairly decent career as a 48 year old musician/singer/songwriter/recording artist, while the Triumph franchise is um….? No, it wasn’t brave, I wasn’t gonna go down with the ship that’s all. Hey, I wasn’t the Captain or the First Mate anyway.
John – I hear so many influences in your work Jazz, World, Classical and Blues. Do you think some fans are surprised when they go to a concert and you kind of expand their boundaries?
Rik – Some are but most aren’t. The crowds are a little more select these days and a lot of them know what I’m all about. The really hardcore, old Triumph/Rik Emmett fans, know that I was the guy who had put classical guitar pieces, jazz tunes and bluesy things as departures on the old Triumph albums. Anyways, so they just know what’s what. You still occasionally get a guy or two who expect to hear “Rock and Roll Machine” on a nylon string! In all, the audiences are so much more diverse now and they tend to be music lovers as opposed to event hungry rockers.
John – The guitar trilogy has a journal/diary feel to me, kind of a peak back at your roots. Were those three albums a rites of passage for you? I hear artists say that they had to make those albums, do you feel that
Rik – Absolutely. If I had my druthers, I would have much more eclectic kinds of albums but there’s something about marketing that requires one to package a theme up and tie a pretty ribbon on it and I don’t mind. Hell, I used to love when a progressive band like Yes would put out something as out there as “Tales From Topographic Oceans.” So the trilogy was a question of taking the strongest threads of my roots, influences and organizing them into three piles. If something didn’t fit into those three categories it went into the have to wait for the future pile. Now the trilogy has had a strong influence on the future and provided its own strong sense of direction. No question, the process teaches that the process is what it’s all about, passage, not destinations. Even though albums give the impression of conclusions they are just snapshots taken during the journey.
John – Swing Shift had influences from Smooth Jazz and Jazz. Do you listen to a lot of that stuff?
Rik – Yep, love it. I was a huge fan of Grusin and Rosen’s GRP label from its inception. I really do
love the work of people like Pat Metheny, Brian Hughes and have soft spots in my heart for pioneering types like George Benson and Earl Klugh. My wife loves Acoustic Alchemy and my choices for home listening often include Steely Dan and Sting. I also enjoy many kinds of more traditional Jazz, although I’ll admit that the hard bop sax playing doesn’t do it for me as much as the Bill Evans, Joe Pass and Jim Hall stuff. It curls my toes and makes my neck hair tingle and I’m also a sucker for Tony Bennett, Toots Thielmanns, Russell Malone’s tone and Yellowjackets. Anything where funk and Latin start to have modest Jazzy ambitions I just love it. I also love those old Tower of Power hits.
John – Well it sounds like we have very similar tastes. Smooth Jazz has been big in the U.S. for a lot of years. Now it’s ever so slowly gaining ground in Canada with the Hamilton station and this summer with the new Calgary Smooth Jazz outlet and Global just applied also in Winnipeg. What are your thoughts on Smooth Jazz?
Rik – I really like the idea of it. In practical reality, I hope the format doesn’t take all the spice out of the dishes on the menu though. If it gets too smooth it starts to remind me of programming formats from hell. They include elevator pablum, mall muzak, New Age Ambience, Quiet Storm Fall Asleep hour, and the all-day Geritol and Nyquil combo of the formats that still program Perry Como sweater/Percy Faith soundtracks. There is a serious spark of musicianship that can thrive in the format and it would be a shame if the format started formatting it out of the format. Format, floor mat.
John – That’s always a fear. When I was programming the stuff, if I ever heard something that was iffy, something that maybe had strings, I would imagine hearing it in an elevator and if the image was too realistic that song would be shelved forever. There are a lot of nice pieces out there but many have no teeth, they are just too mellow or too sweet and putting something like that on air will literally stop the radio station. I was at Tom Lee music a few weeks ago and I heard these two fifteen year old kids in the guitar section arguing about Lenny Breau. One guy was giving the other guy hell for not knowing who he was. It was kind of funny to watch but it reminded me that the charts don’t’ always represent who’s the best and I think it is sad that more of the younger generation don’t know who he was.
Rik – The smart ones, the good ones, they’ll find out if they’re serious. The bloodlines whether you’re talking blues, jazz, rock, country or whatever, they’re so strong. There’s so much media, so much information available nowadays it’s impossible to miss the scent of the trail that leads you to the real stuff. But you’re right , we live in an age of charts, formats and demographics. A world of instant gratification, video games, DVD’s and the WWF. There’s a lot of fast food junk and kids can totally occupy their entire lives without reading a book, a newspaper or listening to Coltrane. Am I starting to sound like Paddy Chayevsky’s script for NETWORK? The market slices up into thin demographic pieces and you just have to hope and pray that things like Lenny Breau’s legacy, Wes Montgomery’s, Charlie Christian’s, Hank Garland’s, Eddie Lang’s, Segovia’s and Tarrega’s don’t get assimilated by The Borg. (Format floor mat.) I actually have some optimism, although I have grave doubts about the digitization of the industry. It makes for some very very low common denominators indeed. Low common denominator thinking does not respect the best that the human spirit dreams about.
John – Do you always have music in your head or can you give it a rest? Some artists are always songwriters and they wake up in the middle of the night with a new tune in their head, a lyric or a hook.
Rik – I can give it a rest because I have many other interests. I love sports and I coach baseball. My son plays it at a high level and one of my daughters plays rep level soccer. I love movies and I also love to read. I will admit that on occasion being a songwriter/composer/recording artist is very much like being possessed, haunted or like being the absent minded professor who walks out of the house without his pants on because the music is so engrossing that you lose track of the time and the surroundings. It’s a flow state which is cool, but I’m now at an age where I need to try and keep my blood sugar consistent or I can turn into a helluva grump. The stuff that wakes you up in the middle of the night is always cool but it will still need the ninety-nine percent perspiration to turn the one percent inspiration into solid stuff. This reminds me of a old David Brenner joke about keeping the pad beside the bed for those hilarious jokes that he’d literally dream up but forget in the morning. So he wakes up one night killing himself laughing, writes down the joke and goes back to sleep. In the morning he reads what he’s written on the pad, “Uncle Harry, chasing me.” It’s the labour of love that makes things into universal dream catchers. As Chet Atkins used to say, “work really hard so that you can make the hard stuff look really easy and then go ahead and enjoy the show biz of making the easy stuff look hard.”
John – Isn’t that the truth. I was talking to Myles Goodwyn of April Wine a little while ago and he seemed somewhat relieved that people don’t recognize him in the produce section of his local grocery store anymore. Do you get that a lot and do you mind?
Rik – There’s a great article in this weekend’s Globe by Johanna Schneller about stardom. Are you asking if I mind still being recognized or being more like Myles and not getting recognized anymore?
John – Either one.
Rik – I don’t mind either way. It’s a funny thing though, to be getting older and to be trying to come to terms with all of that. Your kids turning into adults around you, your waistline losing its six-pack and as Robin Williams recently said, “your prostate getting bigger than your ego.” While at the same time coping with the whole silly, funny thing about having once been a rock star who wore skin tight spandex pants and strutted about with lasers and fleshpots punctuating testosterone fuelled cartoonist stage moves. I don’t mind at all to be honest, I actually enjoy it whether or not I get recognized or asked for an autograph. I didn’t get into show business cuz I wanted to be a rock star, I got into it because I wanted to play for a living and guess what? I still do. I’m a musician. I’m a songwriter. I will be until the day I die. Celebrity is part of the game and I respect and honor that. There’s no business like show business. Someday, when you’ve got some time, I’ll tell you about the great guitar clinic gig that I had to play a few years back directly over and I kid you not, the produce section of a grocery store in Kingston Ontario. Being a Canadian musician is always an exercise in humility in one way or another. If you get too big for your britches don’t worry. The Canadian media is always looking to tear living strips of flesh off of its young or old! That’s what we like to call a star system!
John – Was there ever anything to that Rik Emmett is joining Styx rumor?
Rik – Yes and no. An Email came through a third party who knew that Styx was hunting for a new vocalist to tour with. Was I interested? I have had a few conversations in the past with Tommy Shaw, a good guy but I did not know if I wanted to commit for a long tour and really focused in my own work and vision (the guitar trilogy) and my mom was ill so I sent an email back through with a few suggestions .My hockey buddy, Larry Gowan! But they’d apparently already hooked up with Larry Gowan and when I heard that I felt that it was a very strong karma/kismet kind of partnership. Apparently, it has really worked out well for both parties. Things like this float out because I have had two serious overtures in the past. One from ASIA and one from BOSTON and I eventually turned ’em both down. I was never really looking to become a sideman (frontman vocalist) in an arena rock band doing the summer shed tours. I was interested in whether or not these bands were interested in trying to build something new and creative, as my friend Steve Morse was glad to find as the working environment when he joined Deep Purple. In both cases, it was really just an exploitation kind of situation and not a very solid
Creative kind of project.
John – I was listening to The Wave in Hamilton and heard them play THREE CLOUDS ACROSS THE MOON from your Swing Shift CD. To me, that’s a good driving tune and there’s a sense of motion to it. What was going through your mind when you put it together?
Rik – Ha! Driving through the south of France in a convertible. I kid you not. The title comes from a Henri Rousseau painting. A clown is walking with a woman across a moonlit garden, all blues and silvers. Coming from the masquerade ball? Walking off too much champagne? In the sky overhead, three clouds scud across the moon. The song has morphed into a bit of a Carlos Santana-esque rock/Latin jam at gigs with a healthy dose of Allman Brothers. Driving is right!
John – It’s a great tune. I heard about you and George Benson doing a twenty minute version of On Broadway on your show at the buffalo guitar festival. Now how cool was that?
Rik – Too cool for the room. I was as high as a kite, during and after. He was a gracious guy to get up and share my humble little stage. He is a monster player of course and one of my favorites. Plus, he was very complimentary and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a week after. That was a once in a lifetime kind of thing. They just showed it on PBS.
John – You and Denton Young go back a long way. I remember him from Zon, he was a very distinctive vocalist and he almost had an operatic flavor in his Rock style. What’s he doing these days? I heard rumors years ago that the band was getting back together which seemed odd to me because unfortunately they
never became an A list band. When I got rid of my vinyl I kept my three Zon albums because I had this feeling they would never be released on CD.
Rik – Denton lives in my end of town and he has just become a proud poppa, adopting a little baby girl from Viet Nam. He works a high-end construction foreman kind of day job. The kind where he can always dress in fancy clothes and supervises and has apparently been commuting from Ottawa the last month or so where he has been spending weekday evenings sitting in with the local bands and creating a bit of a stir. He is, of course, quite a funky drummer and yes his vocal style was very much based on being a trained Anglican Choir boy, which he was never ashamed of. He is one of the warmest, sincerest souls I know and his energy and enthusiasm know no bounds. He talks about the great ZON reunion. The keyboard guy, Howard Helm, lives and works in Florida. They may do it for the hell of it sometime though, a cast of characters to be sure.
John – Well let me know if it ever happens, I thought ZON was a great band. Interestingly, a lot of the Canadian acts I grew up listening to are now going without big record deals, doing it themselves and even though they may not make the headlines as much their certainly making more money. I think that’s one big thing that the record buying public doesn’t realize.
Rik – I think that if you have some of the curiosity factor because of who you used to be, there is some potential. But it’s still hard work and you have to wear more hats. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve got some great help from some key people, my marketing/promo management guy, Rick Wharton, my website designer, Nicole Doughty and my graphic designer, Jeanine Leech. Without middlemen there is more net to be had from gross, even if grosses are drastically reduced. But the workload is daunting and the decision- making is pressurized and time constrained. You better feel like it’s an avocation right down into your DNA.
John – I remember Doug Bennett of Doug & the Slugs saying, “You can go gold in Canada and ride the bus” ain’t that the truth?
Rik – Ha! You can go PLATINUM and still be staying at Quality Inns and bouncin’ around in the back of a rental van. Like I said, you better have it screamin’ at you from your chromosomes, “I have to be a musician!”
John – Radio is very similar, it’s amazing how many people think I make the big buck ! Ha! You’ve been married to the same person since 1976. Hey, what are you trying to do break a Rock n Roll stereotype? (Laughing) I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of your musician friends play musical chairs with different mates since 1976. How did you make it work especially since you were on the road so much?
Rik – My wife is a saintly figure who tolerates much and deserved much better. It’s been my good fortune that she still feels like she ended up getting a fairly good deal too. Does that sound like humility? I think that’s part of the secret of success in these kinds of things. Like I said, I didn’t get into it so that I could live the life of a rock star. I wanted a nice paycheck, sure, so that I could buy a nice house and settle down with the misses and raise four kids. Four great kids by the way, wonderful people, the kind that make my eyes sting with pride and love far more than I ever deserve. It worked because of two clich�©s. Absence made the heart grow fonder all the touring and familiarity can breed contempt. (Maybe I got a little too
used to maid service and room service). I’ll admit, it has been harder for us to deal with things when there hasn’t been as much money to throw at problems and when I’ve been around the house more, touring less and with us both trying to adjust to having a recording studio, his and her offices and four teenaged kids on the premises. But we each have the same priority, each other. So it’s a labour of love, my friend.
John – What do you think is the biggest misconception that people may have about you?
Rik – Some transfer rock and roll fantasies on to me. I honestly don’t think people would have many misconceptions about me. I honestly think that not too many people have even bothered to form conceptions or perceptions of me.
John – Still keeping in shape with Basketball?
Rik -Yes and no. I’ve played a bit since major knee surgery last March but I’ve been coaching baseball, even with an indoor program this winter and the schedules have conflicted, costing me my Tuesday nights. By the way, you’re a B.C. guy, so maybe you’ll appreciate this. I’m coaching the triple AAA minor bantam Mississauga Tigers this year. I am not the head coach, just a bench coach and last year this team formed the core of Team Ontario that went to the National Peewee Championships in P.E.I. last summer. I
wasn’t coaching last year, just a proud poppa along for the ride, taking a season off. They went all the way to the finals and won the silver medal. They lost by one run to a pretty good team from B.C, which featured a terrific young pitcher named Drew Parker. Anyhow, for your information, my only B.C. connection of late.
John – What will the next album be like?
Rik – Here’s a version of the CD tray card blurb. HANDIWORK contains eleven instrumental Smooth Jazz and classical guitar tracks, all original pieces that evolve the virtuosity, musicianship and composing chops that have developed over the last decade. Jazzy Latin rhythms, World, Folk, roots and solo guitar pieces dance all over the fingerboard showcasing a high-wire balancing act between soulful drama and playfulness for Canada’s eclectic Renaissance Man of The Guitar.
John – Rik, thanks so much and good luck on the tour. We’ve posted all your tour dates on the site. Take care of yourself.
Rik – Thanks John. I appreciate the interest and effort. I think Spud (Rick Wharton) will keep you in the loop!All the best.