Triumph Bassist Just Doesn’t ‘Get It’ When It Comes to New Music
Canadian rock icons Triumph just released a new career retrospective called ‘Greatest Hits Remixed.’ The two disc set includes some of the band’s most famous songs as well as a DVD with some rare clips. I recently spoke with Triumph bassist Mike Levine about ‘Greatest Hits Remixed,’ the possibility of a new tour and a crazy incident before the band’s headline spot at the 2008 Rocklahoma.
You included a bootleg video on the ‘Greatest Hits Remixed’ DVD which is really cool. When you started out did you say, ‘God, we’re going to be known for our lights, gosh darn it.’ How did that all happen?
Well, when we started out as a whole plan behind the band was for a three piece hard rock we wanted to play hockey rinks, we wanted to have the best show of anybody on the road. And of course, when you start out that’s just pipe dreams. But that’s how we started. We just spent more money than we could afford to do on lights and effects and whatever. But the bottom line was always the music to us and the show itself or any special effects were there to enhance the music. We always thought of being on stage is like theater. If there aren’t lights then you don’t have effects and make it interesting to look at, well why would people go to a concert? Might as well stay at home and listen on their stereo. So we always looked at a concert and our production business as being at an event. We wanted people to feel like they had an event, they go their money’s worth, they walked out of there, they were smiling, they go, ‘Wow, did I ever have a great time tonight!’
You mentioned hockey. And you always wear your hockey jersey. Is that your greatest passion beyond music?
No, not really. Believe it or not, that just happened by accident. The first time we played Maple Leaf Garden, which is a hockey rink here in Toronto, we walked in the dressing room before the show and there was a hockey leaf jersey hanging there. We went, ‘Oh, I wonder what that’s for?’ And then the promoter came in, he said, ‘Ahh, the owner came by and he wants one of you guys to wear that on stage to hype the team up a little bit.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll wear it.’ And then it kind of became every time we played a building that had a hockey team, an NHL team, there’s always a jersey sitting in the dressing room. So that’s why it became my trademark so to speak. ‘Here’s that bass player that wears a hockey jersey.’
So ‘Love Hurts’ is the single from this new ‘Greatest Hits’ which is kind of surprising because it’s a cover. And I guess Rik [Emmett, singer] isn’t on it. So how did that get selected as a single?
Well, when we were putting this package together, I was going through looking for unreleased stuff that we could enhance the package with. And everything that I found was basically what I call, the ‘alarms’ on an Triumph bloopers album because it wasn’t very good and [there's] a reason why it never showed up on a record. And then most of it was unfinished because we always had a policy that we’d start a song, do a bed track for it, put a vocal on it and we’d sit back and listen and we’d go, ‘Yep, we can continue to work on this,’ or, ‘Nope, it’s never going to make it, throw it in the garbage.’
So we got tons of ‘throw-in-the-garbage’ type stuff that never got finished but nothing that was really complete. And I didn’t want to put a blooper on it. So this was a leftover from ‘Edge of Excess’ sessions, [an] album that we made without Rik. A guitar player named Phil Xenidis back in ’94 or something like that. So I found that tape and I went, ‘Wow, I forgot all about this.’ Rik’s not on it but that’s not the end of the day. It’s still part of Triumph’s career. And so we got it mixed up. It turned out great and we love it and the rest is kind of history. Hopefully radio [is] going to play it a little bit.
You have other greatest hits. So why now? Why create something new?
Well, if you go back to ‘Classics,’ that was released I guess in 1989. And it was what we call a ‘contractual commitment’ album. That Rik had left the band in order for the record companies to always have in their contacts that if the band breaks up or doesn’t give us anymore product, they get a chance put out a greatest hits. So that’s exactly what MCA Records did. And from an audio point of view and stuff, I was able to get involved on the audio side. But on the packaging side, they did that all by themselves. And they might as well just wrapped it in toilet paper as far as I’m concerned. I mean, there’s no packaging there at all. I saw the president of the company and I said, ‘Myron [Roth] thanks a lot for the packaging. At least you got the names of the band members in there.’
Ever since then, one of my passions has been to create a really good greatest hits that the fans are going to like. And really, the fans have put pressure. Every email that we get on our website, it refers to a new greatest hits package. We went ‘Okay, we’ve got to put one together. But what’s going to really make it different?’ So we decided to take a shot at remixing the songs to really make them come alive from the old days of old technology. And I had my doubts whether it would work or not. But it turned out great as far as I’m concerned. Rich Chycki — he did the mixes — is an enormous Triumph fan. So my concerns pretty much went away after we did the first one because he knew how to keep the magic in the songs without using the technology and putting it over the top. It’s not like the songs are different, it’s just that they are different. But they still have the integrity of what made the song great.
When we built our studio, it was like back in ’81, I think probably 1984 or 1985, a new piece of gear came out every week. And most of it was obsolete two weeks later. So you had to be careful of what you acquired and what you used. But we sampled everything when it came into the studio just to check it out and most of it we sent back. But in the last five to seven years, I mean, the advancements have been enormous as to recording technology. Sure it’s different and it certainly is – you can take the old stuff, you can certainly make it sound like it was recorded yesterday. It’s amazing. To me, I was just amazed on how great this stuff could sound.
So now about touring. Will it happen?
As you’re probably aware, there was, we had an issue with Rik for many, many years. And those issues got resolved and we went and played … well of course the two shows that we played in 2008. And we really had a tour planned for 2009. And it was all booked, the buildings were on hold and come January of 2009, the economy looked so bad that between our agent and the promoters and us, we started to get just a little bit nervous that things would not be good come the summertime. And it turns out things were a disaster last summer. So we’re very prudent in not going out and the advice again for this summer was its going to be just as bad. So we’ve tabled any discussions and plans until later in the fall of this year and we’re going to talk about 2011 then.
I don’t think I’ve every come out and read a statement that says, ‘Rik Emmett is a full member of Triumph today.’ Is that true?
Rik is, he’s in the band when we play, he’s playing. He is — we’re back to being buddies again. We’ve all agreed on whatever business issues we have to agree on and we’re still doing interviews around this album and we’re back. We had dinner the other night and they threw us out of the restaurant, we were laughing so hard. But no, we have no issues with each other. Everything is completely on board.
Does that mean that you are writing music together right now?
We’ve tabled the idea of writing music because that’s a good way to end a nice relationship right away. It’s very difficult to write, especially in today’s world. We wonder whether it would be the right move to make an entire album according to what’s going on out there and what we hear from other bands and managers and the record companies and radio people. Fans really don’t care about new music: they love your old music and they kind of resent the fact if you do something new and you play it live that maybe you could have played something that they grew up with instead. That’s a new material anthem.
Do you find that hurtful?
Not really. I mean, that’s just the way of the world. It’s hard to make a very, very good album or a great album. But to make an incredible album borders on the impossible for most people. And but unless it really has something special to it, I don’t think it’s worth doing. It’s just the way it is. It’s a lot of work and a lot of money. I mean, a lot of heartache goes into making an album. And if it’s not received well, it can be kind of depressing.
Do you like any new hard rock or metal bands that are coming out?
It’s really hard to like them. I mean, geez, I just don’t get it, some of it. I kind of feel like my dad, like, ‘The Beatles, they’ll never make it. Look at what garbage that is.’ But I’d give my teeth to hear a guitar solo on a record by a good guitar player. Like no guitar solos. There’s just guys playing their guitars loud. Anybody can play three chords, I mean, that’s really easy. And it’s just all up-tempo, fast whatever. And if there’s a solo, it’s probably not very good. And then maybe that’s why you don’t hear many guitar solos. But you look at all the great bands, the heritage bands. Name me one that didn’t have a fabulous guitar player in it.
I blame it all on the record labels. They decided back in the late ’80′s, they didn’t way to pay double for the talented bands anymore. So they developed a philosophy that if we don’t pay big dough for Aerosmith or Triumph or whoever, and then get grunge acts, we can make albums in basements for $25,000 or $30,000 and eventually radio stations will have to play them because we give them the software. We have no choice but to play what we give them eventually. And then our sponsor isn’t as big, we don’t have to pay out big dough, we can make more money off of these new young bands, we don’t have to pay them as big of royalty or a big advance or whatever and we’re going to win. And that’s exactly what happened. And out of that era, of course there was a Nirvana and there was a Pearl Jam, who I think were both great bands. But there was garbage around it and the garbage has come to the forefront. And it’s like here today, gone tomorrow. They might be able to do 4,000 seats this year and next year nobody’s going to care. They’re certainly not going to graduate into big buildings.
Now the time that I’ve seen you is at Rocklahoma. Was it true that you had a limo driver that was drunk or something? Am I remembering this correctly?
Yep, we sat there — remember how you came off the highway onto the dirt road from the site, right? As soon as we turned off the highway, we got pulled over by two cop cars. And then two more showed up. And we’re sitting in the limo and they grab the driver and they take him out. Now apparently his tags had expired. And that required four cruisers to deal with.
In Pryor, Okla., right?
Right. And perhaps maybe he may have had some alcohol in his system. That I can’t attest to, I have no idea. But we’re sitting there and we got tests to do and everything and plus a show to play. And we’re sitting there and as our tour manager’s with us, he phoned the promoter and he said, ‘Get another vehicle down here. This limo’s going nowhere.’ So they brought a van down. And Rik and I got out of the car and popped the trunk open and started taking our stuff out and big Billy Bob the sheriff comes over. He’s 280 pounds, all of it here. And he said, ‘Boy, get your ass back in that car right now. I don’t recall telling you to get out of the car and you better get your skinny ass back in that car.’”
Oh, my god.
And then Rik and I kind of looked at each other going, ‘Yikes!’ We got back in the car. So then another car goes to the promoter who hunts [us] down and starts talking to cops, going, ‘What are you doing? This is my band, they’re headlining, I need them now. What are you doing? You got a problem with the limo driver, who cares? These guys got to go.’ So finally, the cops said, ‘All right, boys you can all leave now.’ And then Billy Bob comes over, and he says, ‘Now, listen son, I ain’t going to apologize for telling you to get your skinny ass back in that car. But you got to understand that we don’t know, you could have had some kind of explosive device or some rifle in that trunk. And you were pulled over by us state troopers. You got to watch your ass boy!’
And away we went. Then we had the press conference with Eddie Trunk. We had three or four syndicated shows we had to do prior to performance. And it was like we’re in a big rush now, right. It’s like, what can go wrong, will go wrong. Who would have thought you would get pulled over in a limo going to a gig? That’s the first time that ever happened to us!”
Shall I presume that then the biggest thing for Triumph in 2010 is this greatest hits package?
That’s a pretty good presumption. And actually for us, is it a big thing because we take forever to do things usually. Like our motto is, ‘Why do something today that you can put off until tomorrow?’ That’s how Triumph always operated. I didn’t think it was going to make it until the fall to be honest with you. I was like panicked that things wouldn’t be on time and people hadn’t done their correct jobs and this wasn’t finished, that wasn’t done. But eventually everything worked out. So to me it’s like a miraculous event.