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NIGHT LIFE THE CLUB SCENE

Seeking New Triumphs : Hard rock guitarist Rik Emmett gained fame as part of the Canadian trio, but now he's playing it alone.

February 14, 1991|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Quick now, what's one-third of "having it made"? Why, guitar god Rik Emmett, of course. He used to be in the Canadian super-trio Triumph. Now he's not. But he's on tour with a new band, and Triumph is home in Toronto.

Emmett will make his local debut Saturday night at the Ventura Theatre. He doubtlessly hopes that you will attend, buy a T-shirt and later purchase a copy of his new record, "Absolutely."

"Everything is kind of hectic right now," Emmett said during what seemed like his 1,000th phone interview from his Hollywood hotel room. "You know, there's a lot of press in L. A.--a lot of 'meet-and-greets,' " he said. "But all these interviews are just part of the process; sometimes I do three or four a day, sometimes eight or nine. It's all sort of culture shock because I used to be just a guy in a band."

That other band sold millions of records and almost as many concert tickets. Triumph was an arena rock, corporate rock, power rock trio that was smooth enough but universally slagged by the critics, few of whom are impressed by smoothness.

Now that Emmett is gone, it's not as though the other two guys are on welfare or anything. Although they're apparently not performing at the moment, they probably have their names stenciled on permanent parking spaces at the bank, a certain cure for even the most debilitating case of "creative differences."

"I left Triumph in the fall of 1988," Emmett said. "I felt that things had run their course for me. The political course within the band was untenable. The whole thing will probably end up in court somewhere, and some lawyers will make a lot of money. The other two guys as a majority still own the name, but they haven't done any shows. If I was to pursue a career as a musician, it would have to be a solo career. So, here I am."

Taking the triumvirate out of Emmett is another story; the new record is not unlike a Triumph recording. "Absolutely" is your basic, by-the-numbers hard rock exercise with a few slow ballads thrown in to calm the more excitable fans. No one is going to confuse Emmett's music with that of R.E.M. or Mariah Carey--he's still a guitar god.

"I made a shift in form from being in an arena rock band to being a singer and songwriter, especially a songwriter. This is a transitional album for me. I haven't yet made that evolutionary step," he said.

"I do half Triumph songs and half my own stuff," he said of his stage performances. "The audiences seem to like these little guitar pieces that I used to sneak onto Triumph records--they're not really B sides, but more F or G sides."

Although many Triumph fans are heavy metal kids, Emmett insists that he's a hard rocker and not a heavy metal kind of guy. What's the difference?

"IQ points," he said. "Heavy metal to me was always tied to a certain type of image: Black Sabbath sort of stuff with a lot of dirge-like power chords. Hard rock goes back, I think, to Deep Purple. It's just a question of attitude."

No matter what one calls Emmett's music, his reputation as a guitar wizard seems assured. Routinely voted among the rock elite in any number of polls and contests, Emmett is also a columnist for Guitar Player magazine.

"Writing a column is OK, although it's very hard work for very little money," Emmett said. "Writing is a way for me to keep my head in there. It helps with my attitude and my mind-set to always be a student of the instrument, and to approach it from a humble point of view. Writing helps keep me fresh. Young guitarists should, of course, read the magazine--only kidding."

What he isn't kidding about is his attitude that guitarists should take their craft seriously. "There's a lot more guitar education available now than when I was a kid. There's videos now and all sorts of things. Guitars are recognized at colleges where you can take university-level courses and study under master players," he said.

"Yet you still have to put in the hours, play whenever you can and just try to be comprehensive and keep an open mind. The tragedy among modern guitarists is that a lot of them just get the haircut and buy the cool clothes and they think they're in there."

Perhaps the best song on "Absolutely" is "Big Lie," a tune that urges the listener to wise up.

"The 'Big Lie' was originated by Hitler," Emmett said. "It's when people are convinced that they have no choice. But you always have a choice. Turn off the TV. Change the channel. There are always choices.

"I think music is universally transcendent--it's art. I'm not sure if it can change the world; I don't have any illusions like in the '60s when love, peace and groovy would save everybody. Nobody's that naive anymore. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be idealistic because music has aspects that can reach people emotionally and intellectually. Anyway, I was just trying to have some fun with that song."

Also sure to have fun is Hollander, a local hard-rock trio with the gig they've been dreaming of: They'll be opening for Emmett.

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