Still Fighting the Good Fight
An in-depth interview with Triumph bassist Mike Levine
by Todd K Smith
Few acts could excite an arena full of rockers like Triumph did throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s. When guitarist/vocalist Rik Emmett, bassist/keyboardist Mike Levine, and drummer/vocalist Gil Moore were at their peak, any opening act could fall victim to a hail of coins, lighters, or beer cans. Their faithful legions were rabid and remain so to this day, keeping classic tunes like “Lay It on the Line,” “Never Surrender,” “Hold On,” and “Fight The Good Fight” in heavy rotation on rock radio. The demand for a serious Greatest Hits package has kept the band busy since reforming in 2007. The project fell to bassist Mike Levine who contacted sound engineer Rich Chycki (who has previously worked with Aerosmith and Rush) to dust off the classics and inject new life into them using modern technology. The result is Greatest Hits: Remixed. “We have been planning this release forever,” says Levine. “Triumph fans have been demanding that we give them a fresh greatest hits package and they are going to love this one.”
The deluxe two-disc package is housed in a six-panel digipak including a 20-page color booklet, complete with liner notes, lyrics, and a ton of vintage photos. Levine took time to call us and talk about the resurgence of Triumph and their plans for global domination once again. “Since record stores are becoming a thing of the past,” says Levine. “We had to consider how to preserve, package and deliver our catalog. Toronto used to boast some of the best record stores in Canada like Sam the Record Man (a 10,000 square foot mega-complex that stood as an icon on Younge Street), HMV is still here, Sunrise Records, CD Plus, but they’re not like Sam the Record Man. Doing this project we got a chance to update the music using today’s technology. We’re ready to go digital if all the stores disappear. A lot of our older stuff was recorded in the mid-to late ‘70s. We were so limited in the out put back then - but now it’s unbelievable what’s available.”
Triumph drummer Gil Moore owns and operates Metalworks Studios located in Mississauga, Ontario. The business has been around for 30+ years and has recorded acts such as Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas and the Jonas Brothers. “This one landed on my plate,” says Levine of the division or labor. “Gil did have a lot to do with it, but in general I was the one in charge of moving it along. Maybe that’s why it took four years to get it finished (he laughs). Rich Chycki remixed the entire thing. He was by far the best choice. He grew up with Triumph and was a huge fan. He begged me, he said, ‘Micky, you have to let me do this. Don’t hire anyone else, hire me, I’m the guy that can do the best job.” I trusted him and he did a great job.”
In a three piece, there’s no place to hide. Each of the musicians from the ‘classic’ lineup are incredibly strong at what they do. They also have strong opinions about how it should sound and be played. “No doubt about it, Rik was the driving force,” explains Levine, “but both Gil and Rik took turns singing - radio tended to like Rik’s voice a little better, but they split it down the middle.” Then he chides, “They wouldn’t let me sing. I always thought I had the best voice in the band, but no one agreed with me. I also told them both that the bass was the most important instrument in the band. Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but a great bass player - that’s really hard to find. I would joke around and say, ‘You guys can’t fire me, I’m too hard to replace.”
In all seriousness, Levine deserves his due respect. Influenced by Jacko Pastorius (Weather Report), John Entwistle and Jazz great Chuck Rainey, he accomplished much by allowing the notes to breathe between passages. “My dad was a professional bass player,” says Levine, “he would tell me, ‘It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.’ I always kept that in mind. I grew up in a very musical house, so I listened to all kinds of music. From a rock and roll perspective, I was drawn to John Paul Jones, Noel Redding, Rodger Glover, and Peter Cetera from Chicago - who I think is one of the best players in any kind of band. I liked guys that could play but didn’t go too far outside the box they stayed within the realm of what the band was. They may not be virtuoso players, but they drove the band…or drove the song.”
“I got to meet some great people and got to spend some quality alcoholic time with them,” remembers Levine. “Guys like John Entwistle; we spent a great evening drinking, him, me, and Joe Walsh. We covered “Rocky Mountain Way” on the Rock & Roll Machine album, so we had this connection with Joe. Let me tell you the story. Our first ever headline gig in America was in San Antonio, Texas. We weren’t really ready to be a headlining act, but the radio station down there was playing the heck out of our first record. They had booked a show with Joe Walsh, Sammy Hagar, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Yesterday and Today (now Y&T). The show was half sold when Sammy elected to take a pass and go open for Kiss. They needed a headliner to fill in. They called us and asked if we’d take the slot. We really doubted we could pull it off.”
“We packed up all our gear and rented a bunch more. The show sold out 68,000 seats. It was our first time on a big stage. Surprisingly, we handled it really well. The audience went nuts. We did our encore and were out of songs. So we’re in the dressing room getting changed and congratulating each other that we pulled it off, when in walks the promoter saying we need to go back out. Nobody had left the building, they’re all up there screaming for us to do another song. We told him we didn’t have any other songs. Then Gil says, ‘We could do Rocky Mountain Way, we did that in a bar once - drunk.’ Then we all got serious about it and worked out the lyrics and chords. We went back out on stage and started the opening riff - the place exploded. It became a part of our show after that. So, we decided to put it on our second record. Joe loved it and still talks about it.”
When asked why “Rocky Mountain Way” was left off the new compilation, Levine explains. “We were looking for something unreleased and we really didn’t have anything. ‘Love Hurts’ was a song we did with Triumph V2 after Rik left the band around the Edge of Success-era (1992). We always loved the song and thought it was a great version so Rich mixed it and there it is.” Levine also has his favorite Triumph song. “I think the signature song for Triumph was ‘Fight the Good Fight.’ It really covers all the bases of what Triumph was or is. It’s got a bit of a progressive edge, some nice quiet melodies, and the heavy stuff. Rik had a great guitar solo, great vocal. The record it came from Allied Forces, really put us over the top. We were on the map before, but that one put us over. That record was a breeze to make. We were in our own studio, so we didn’t have a time clock, and the songs flowed nicely. MTV helped a lot too. They liked us and played the heck out of our stuff."
Something unique to Triumph was their ability to build a solid fan base without playing the support slot. “We never opened for anyone except in a festival environment,” says Levine. “We used mainly pro bands like Molly Hatchet, Bad Company, Mountain, UFO - big bands in their own right and it added value for the ticket price. Once we reached a certain level, we helped out Canadian bands like Harlequin, but we were leery of using unknown/new bands because they could get hurt, literally. People threw stuff at them! Some acts wouldn’t last more than 60 seconds. They’d get so much crap thrown at them they’d have to leave the stage. Accept opened for us one time in Portland, Oregon and they got pelted with quarters. There must have been $200 on the stage in quarters when they finished."
Levine emphasizes that much of Triumph’s success was that they stuck to their guns even under increasing pressure from record labels and promoters. “We always did it our way,” he says. “It was our show. Even if we only played half a house, they at least got to see Triumph the way Triumph was meant to be seen. We had the most effective stage show. Sometimes size is relevant. I’ve seen acts use a thousand lights, but it only looks like two hundred. We would take a thousand lights and make it look like 10,000. We were smart in the design factor and the use of them. We used lighting effects that would create the maximum impact for the music. Everything was designed around the music. It was a lot of hard work, exhausting at times, but we were doing what we loved and living an extraordinary life.”