February 16, 1985
By David Huff
‘Triumph’ant return of Canada's premier power rock trio
"I like to play the odds," echoed a voice over the telephone, "and the odds say San Francisco."
It was four days before the 19th edition of the NFL’s Super Bowl. The San Francisco referred to here was the football playing 49er’s led by Joe Montana. Las Vegas odds had the team giving up three points to win against the most explosive offense in pro football, the Miami Dolphins, led by rookie quarterback Dan Marino.
The voice on the phone belonged to rock and roll odds maker Mike Levine, the bass player and sometime keyboardist for the hard rocking Canadian trio Triumph. And yes, Levine openly admits to being a gambler. He was siding with the 49er’s because they had the NFL’s best record at 17-1; the NFL's toughest secondary led by Ronnie Lott, and the game was literally being held the teams backyard, Palo Alto, California.
"I gamble and I love it," confessed Levine without hesitation. "I like to go to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, the track, everything. But still, to me the biggest gamble of them all is making records."
In that regard, Levine is an unqualified expert. The stakes are high when it comes to recording, what a band hopes, will be a successful album.
"Trying to get your record played on radio stations across the country to me is fascinating, absolutely fascinating," replied Levine from his Toronto home.
"When you put out a record, you have to play the odds, you have to work the stations, you have got to know the formula for winning. I love it. I love watching the album move up the charts and the little moves and strategies that are responsible for making a record happen. There is no greater thrill. Our last album, Thunder Seven, it was just like shooting craps. We had no idea what was going to happen."
Triumph could have very well called their last album, Lucky Seven, had they wanted to. The record, with its mesmerizing hit single, "Spellbound," cast its charm throughout the country enchanting fans and critics alike with its powerful back to the basics rock approach that was a Triumph trademark when they first broke into the business ten years ago.
"There is no doubt that Thunder Seven is a back to the basics album for Triumph," answered Levine assuredly. "With this album, we took some time off and then decided to have some fun while making music again. This business can get to you after a while. After the last album (Never Surrender) and tour, we sat back and started thinking about a lot of things."
Levine says that he, drummer Gil Moore and guitarist Rik Emmett found themselves rehashing the old days of Triumph in a conversation during their last concert tour and how nice it all made them feel. Back then, all the band did was go out and play music, collect whatever money they were due, then go out and buy some beer.
"It really dawned on us separately," recalled Levine, "how special those times were. We found ourselves going, 'Hey remember when, remember when?' and the old days would come up; when playing music was fun."
Levine sounds almost apologetic. "We didn't have to deal with record companies, managers, contracts, merchandising, video production, all that stuff. All we had to do then was play."
Levine didn't openly admit it, but the thrill of creating music with Triumph the past few years had become almost too routine. He's not knocking success, he says, especially since their last two efforts have been certified gold and near platinum. The problem was mentally, the band had reached the point where making an album just meant writing just 'eight more songs.'
"We got into a groove," replied the bass player, "where Rik would write his songs, Gil would write his songs, I would write my songs. Then we would bring our work to the group rehearsal, arrange them together then record. Afterwards, we played the music back and you could pick out the Gil Moore songs, the Rik Emmett songs.
"Out of the blue one day we just said, 'Hey, let's go rent a warehouse, set up our gear and go in and bang. Let's have some fun, play music, screw around and write songs from scratch.' If we had song ideas, we didn't write them down. We brought them to the warehouse and worked on the ideas together. We suddenly found ourselves playing music because we wanted to, not because we had to."
Subsequently, says Levine, instead of an almost completed song with chorus and music being presented to the whole band, everyone worked on and arranged the songs on the spot. This approach created an atmosphere that captured the whole spirit and personality of the band.
"Since I arrange most of the songs," continued Levine, "I didn't have to wait on a finished product to work on and adapt to Triumph. I could say, 'Whoa, right there that chorus shouldn't come here, it should come after that verse, and that bridge should go there.'
"The melodic things that Rik likes to do were getting punchier because of Gil's drumming influence. The writing for the material for Thunder Seven became a homogenized process."
The last two years has seen Levine hone his gambling skills playing craps with Triumph’s record companies in the U.S. and their native Canada. The first roll of the dice came when the band severed their eight-year relationship with its Canadian distribution label, Attic Records. The second roll resulted in a bitter lawsuit with Triumph's American label, RCA. That dispute was finally resolved, with RCA holding all the chips. However, the company did agree to let Triumph negotiate its release from their contract.
"RCA just didn’t know what to do with us," revealed Levine. "We were a fish out of water with them. The label was a singles-oriented record company and Triumph as an album band. After the court case was settled, RCA told us they realized we were unhappy and offered to make us a deal to get out of our contract."
So, while Levine, Emmett and Moore where in a Canadian warehouse recapturing their musical zeal, management hammered out a deal with MCA Records to welcome Triumph aboard the restructured company.
"It created an exciting situation for us," said Levine about Triumph's label decision. "MCA understood where we were coming from and what we were doing. With their background and their president, Irving Azoff, they totally knew how to handle the careers of bands like ours. That weren’t overly concerned with the little black hole in the middle of a piece of vinyl.
"Joining MCA got everybody energized and excited. We were finally with people that knew what to do with us and were genuinely excited about Triumph being with them.
"Knowing that MCA liked and wanted the band breathed some new life into Triumph, some new energy. We were getting excited by the new songs and the manner in which we wrote them. Compounded with the other new things that we were doing, we were three really rejuvenated guys having a good time."
'Fight the good fight every moment, every minute, every day / Fight the good fight every moment / It's your only way.' - Rik Emmett, "Fight the Good Fight"
Those insightful lyrics were written by four years ago for the band’s breakout album, Allied Forces.
"What happened to Triumph in the past mattered for different reasons," insisted Levine. "We’ve finally come to the realization that whatever is going to happen to this band, is going to happen, from business to money to bankers, all of that crap. The only thing we care about now is putting on the best show we can. It's the only thing that matters.
"You can get so wrapped up in all your business, spend all of your time worrying about it, that you can lose sight of who you are. When you start worrying about how much money you have in the bank, you drive yourself crazy. We have simply decided to screw that and just have fun."
That means visiting the entire seven album Triumph catalog when the band goes on the road as well as the prerequisite hits.
"It doesn't bother me at all,” insisted Levine, “that I will always have to play ‘Fights the Good Fight’ or ‘Magic Power’ forever in concert and you know why? I'll never have to play it the same way twice. Some nights are more fun to play than others. Unfortunately, I have to get up In the morning and look at the same face when I shave, and that's a whole lot worse than having to play, ‘Fights the Good Fight’.”
Triumph has a reputation in the music business for putting on one of the most spectacular stage shows In rock and roll. When people come to see this Canadian trio in concert, Levine says the fans know they are going to get their faces blown off.
"This show that we have got right now,” maintains Levine proudly, “is the biggest and the best we have ever had out. We have more lights, more lasers, more pyro and more everything than we ever had before. People know that when they come to a Triumph show, not only are they going to hear some of the best rock and roll they've ever seen, not only is the PA going to be bigger than it was before, we're going to rock their socks right off.
"Our fans know what to expect from Triumph and the reason is consistency. It goes from the show itself all the way down to the merchandise that we sell. People know that when they buy a Triumph t-shirt and they take it home and wash it, it's not going to fall apart. We have kids showing up at our shows wearing Rock and Roll Machine shirts that came out in 1976."
Outside of Genesis, Triumph has gained the distinction of being one of the most technologically advanced groups in the business. When they record an album, the group uses an array of special effects to produce sounds they feel necessary to bring certain songs to life. Levine is quick to point out that Triumph is not too innovative for their own good.
"If we are becoming too technically creative with a song during the recording process," asserted Levine, "we step back and wonder whether or not we can pull the song off in concert. If we don’t think it is possible, then we will tone down the song. We use the same criteria to evaluate every song we write. .
"We've come across situations where we said, 'Let's put synthesizers here,' only to realize afterwards we just couldn’t pull it off live. When you use special effects to create certain sounds on a recording, you run the risk of it becoming real popular. Then you are faced with the task of trying to duplicate that sound in concert. It can't be done.
"When you hear Triumph song on the radio like ‘Never Surrender’, ‘World of Fantasy’, ‘Magic Power’, ‘Fights the Good Fight’ and ‘When the Lights Go Down’, you expect to hear them done the same way in a live setting. At least I do. The only song we run into problems with occasionally in concert is ‘Hold On’, because it Is acoustically sensitive and it's hard to play in some halls that have poor sound."
One remedy that has often been suggested to the band is to hire additional touring musicians to help reproduce the studio effects the band so meticulously creates on their albums.
"We have thought about that for about five to ten seconds and that was it," said Levine flatly. "It has always been the three of us. We don't want to become a techno band that can't play what we record. We place so much emphasis on touring and we are on the road so much, we have to be careful."
Levine hints that there has been some serious discussion about adding an additional instrument to Triumph, but too many variables outweigh the advantages another musician could offer the band.
"Certainly we have thought about adding a fourth guy," responded Levine, "but in doing so, we would be restricted to playing the same music, the same way, every night you on stage. And then you are faced the question do you make him a part of the band, the fourth member? Is he strictly a session guy? If that's the case then ego problems start creeping in because the session guy is not a big star like the rest of us and he gets pissed off. Do you see what I mean?
"With Triumph the way it is, I know that if I go off somewhere in a song, Rik is with me because we have played together for so long. We can improvise on the spot. None of us have to play the same thing every night. Gil knows that if he wants to be creative, it's okay. We know him so well, the two of us can join right in. I feel sorry for four and five-piece bands because if they don't know each other inside and out, they've got to feel restricted and it has to get boring."
Allied Forces, which broke the Triumph nationwide with its battery of hit singles, was the band’s first gold album. The follow-up to that recording, Never Surrender, hit the gold plateau as well thanks to the title track and the Top Five hits, “All the Way” and “A World of Fantasy.” Thunder Seven looks to continue the hot streak.
"Allied Forces was the album where everyone woke up and smelled the coffee," remarked Levine. "On a personal level, I think that Just a Game was a far more successful album than a lot of people really know. I am told that if we sell another 60-70,000 units of that record, it will be certified gold. The song on there, "Hold On," is still the biggest selling single we've had to date. It also has ‘Lay It on the Line’ which still drives people crazy in concert when they hear It.
"In the past, we have often heard the words 'natural progression' used to describe our work from album to album. Musicians have nothing to do with that. Natural progression is going to bed at night and waking up in the morning. When you write music, you just hope that it's good and the public will like it.”
That back to basics approach the band took with the new album caught many fans and critics off guard, and pleasantly surprised.
"Believe me, we were just as stunned as anybody," echoed Levine. "The element of surprise is nice, but it wasn't contrived, it wasn't concocted. This album is a product of frustration, anger and a lot of crap the band went through the last couple of years.
"We never know what is going to happen when we release an album. There's an old saying that goes, 'the only thing you can count on is change.' When it comes to music, however, the more things change, sometimes it has a way of coming full circle, like it did on Thunder Seven. We didn’t have any high expectations when the record was released. In fact, every time we release an album, we just hope for the best.
"There is a certain attitude we have adopted over the years when it comes to releasing albums. When you don't expect something and it happens, that's when you are proud of what you have done. Music is like sports. You do what you do to the best of your capabilities, give it your best shot, and if It works out, that's fantastic."
One thing that has definitely worked out for Triumph is a renewed sense of spirit within the band when it comes to creating music and simply living life. Whether its throwing pies In one another’s face, or sticking unmentionables down one another's pants, the Triumph of days gone by is slowly but surely resurfacing again.
"You're right in saying things aren't so serious for us anymore," concurred Levine. "Like I've said throughout this interview, we are having fun now. We do the dumb, silly stuff backstage like we used to do years ago. In a sense, we’ve reverted back to the old days when all we cared about was making music and enjoying ourselves.
"Sure there are things still left for Triumph to achieve. There's mega-platinum status; that would be nice. The cover of Rolling Stone would be interesting. But for me personally, I'd like to tour in Prince's band just once because he has got great chicks in it. Who knows, maybe he's had the right idea all along."
Mike Levine a card carrying member of the Revolution! Let’s go crazy!