Simply put, Triumph dominated, and ultimately helped define, the early ’80s rock music scene. Ask any rock and roll fan who grew up during that time period to compile a soundtrack for their life and they’ll likely rattle off a litany of Triumph hits, including, “Magic Power,” “Lay It on the Line,” “Fight the Good Fight,” and “Never Surrender,” to name but a few.
However, as Canada’s other power-trio, Triumph also, unfairly, lives somewhat in the shadow of their fellow countrymen, Rush. But as the forthcoming Triumph: Rock & Roll Machine documentary from Banger Films demonstrates, Triumph cut a fine musical figure of their own, and though their meteoric reign as one of rock’s premier acts now seems short-lived, their music continues to stand the test of time.
Looking back, their now-legendary performance at the US Festival in San Bernardino, CA, in 1983, is the moment that both solidified their status as one of the era’s preeminent acts, and also represented the culmination of an historic four-year run. During that span, Triumph produced several genre-defining records, starting in 1979 with Just a Game [RCA], featuring the Top 40 hit, “Hold On,” which peaked at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100, through 1983’s Never Surrender [RCA], featuring the singles, “All the Way,” “A World of Fantasy,” and “Never Surrender,” which hit #2, #3, and #23 on Billboard’s Mainstream Top Rock Tracks chart in 1983.
Guitarist/vocalist Rik Emmett is likely the most identifiable member of Triumph, since the songs featuring his high-timbred voice are still in regular rotation on AOR radio. Drummer Gil Moore also sang, and “Spellbound,” from 1984’s Thunder Seven (MCA), featuring his lead vocal and thunderous drumming, was an MTV staple during that station’s burgeoning years. Often over-looked, as is the case in many bands, is bassist Mike Levine’s solid contributions to the Triumph sound.
Levine’s approach was definitely inspired by the “less is more” adage, but he’s crafted so many little signature moments within the framework of Triumph’s sonic template, that his bass voice is deeply impactful and immediately recognizable. His melodic interludes in “Lay It On the Line,” or the breakdowns in “Fight the Good Fight” and “Never Surrender,” enhance each song utilizing the subtleness of space, nuanced note choice, and hummable melodies. It’s amazing to hear the impact these melodic flourishes have in contrast to the bulk of his approach—though not overly complicated or flashy, such bass lines carry pronounced, integral, melodic heft, because 90% of the rest of the song features more of a bulwark approach to bass. “I'll take that as a compliment,” Levine says, when offered this assessment of his playing approach.
BM had a chance to catch up with Levine at home in Toronto while doing press for the 40th anniversary box set of Allied Forces [RCA, 1981], released exclusively for Record Store Day Canada (June 12th and July 17th), for which Triumph were named ambassadors. The Triumph: Rock & Roll Machine documentary received its world premier on Friday, September 10th, at the Toronto International Film Festival and finally hit the USA market at the premier Philadelphia International Film Festival on Saturday, October 23rd.
How does it feel knowing that the music you created with Triumph four decades ago is still vibrant and relevant?
I think I can speak for Gil and Rik when I say we’re all really proud of what we did and [grateful for] having had the opportunity to play in the big leagues, so to speak—we hit for a good average, in baseball terms. But, in fact, it all comes down to the fans, right? They’re the ones that really made it all happen. We had to give them a reason for loving the band and the music, for being the soundtrack to their lives. And without rock radio, forget it, none of it would ever have happened, which is probably true for any band. We had what they call “evergreen titles” in our catalog that radio continues to play, and so, we garner new fans along the way. I think it’s just all about making good music and being in the right place at the right time.
How did you first get into playing bass when you were a kid?
A bunch of us in high school started a band. I’m going to say that was 1961 or 1962. And we had four guitar players—I played guitar, and a keyboard/piano player, and a drummer. And so, we got rid of a couple of the guitar players, and the guys came to me and said, “Hey, Mike, your dad’s a bass player, so you’re the new bass player in the band. Get your ass to the music store and buy a bass and an amp [laughter].” So that’s really how it started. My dad [Sam Levine] was a bass player—he was in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and was also the top jazz bassist in the city. So, I guess there’s some genetics there somewhere.
Did you learn from him or was he an influence, playing-wise?
Yeah, we tried lessons a couple of times and they didn’t end very well [laughter]. It’s like teaching your kids to drive a car—better to let them go to a driving school. Although, the greatest lesson that I think I learned, that he gave me, as a bass player, was, “Remember, it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play, that makes the difference.” It’s certainly influenced me through my whole career as a bass player.
Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Well, I was exposed to a lot of jazz and R&B guys, like Chuck Rainey, Jaco Pastorius and Richard Davis—those guys were incredible. Later on, it was John Entwistle, and Peter Cetera of Chicago—he blew my mind, how great he is as a player. And John Paul Jones is probably the most underrated player in the world.
You have such major figures in Led Zeppelin in Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham, that what John Paul Jones adds is often overlooked, but if you tune into it, and listen to what he’s playing, you realize how genius it is.
It’s positively brilliant. Some of the playing he came up with is mindboggling if you listen for it. Otherwise, if you don't listen for it, he’s never in the way. And if you took his tracks off, and all you had were Page and Bonham? Boy, I’ll tell you what, there’s not much there [laughter]. Again, just phenomenal, and tasteful—he added to the songs and filled the holes the right way and left the holes the right way.
What was the songwriting process like for Triumph when you guys were in the studio and how did you approach crafting your bass lines within that framework?
The way it works, a lot of times Rik or Gil would bring a song in—they were really the motivators. Then we’d sit down as a band and work through it—let’s try this or change that, or it needs a better chorus. We used to say the song has to be “Triumph-ized.” It had to fit into our format, and sometimes we could make it fit and other times it was impossible. But, from an actual songwriting point of view, I really didn’t think about the bass lines because I produced all the records, so I was always thinking of the endgame—what’s it going to sound like? How are we going to record it? Will it be radio-friendly? Will the fans love it? What kind of sounds are we going to get? So, I was pretty focused that way, certainly later on in our career, from Just a Game onwards.
Just a Game does seem much more polished than the first two records.
We were all just gaining traction as recording musicians, which is a whole different volume from playing live. So, a lot of hard lessons were learned on the first two albums, which I still like a lot because they're rough and raw—we were just blowing our way through it. But overall, I'd say later, like, from Just a Game on, we were a little more professional—we were finding our way as a band.
I’ve always felt that the studio is a microscope that can zoom in on your weaknesses if you’re not prepared. What were some hard lessons you all learned in the studio early on?
Certainly, in the live atmosphere, sometimes you might be a little ahead or a little behind the beat, or the song speeds up or slows down, and it’s all pretty well masked when you’re playing live—you’re not under a microscope. But in the studio, you’ve got to play well—no ifs, ands, or buts. You just have to keep hacking away until you get it right.
What was your main bass, back in Triumph’s heyday?
My go-to bass is still my go-to bass. I bought it in 1963—Fender Jazz, circa 1960, that I bought off a country and western guy for like $150, or something, and it’s been my baby ever since. It’s a part of me. For me, it’s the best recording bass of any bass I’ve ever seen or touched. And, to that point, Prince was recording Musicology [Sony, 2004] at Metalworks [Gil Moore’s recording studio in Mississauga, Ontario] and he wanted jazz basses to play—he was doing bass tracks. And so, the studio manager rented 12 different basses from 12 different stores, and there was this constant run of basses showing up and then leaving, because Prince hated them all. So, the studio manager called me to say, “Mike, I’m having this problem with Prince. Would you consider renting him your bass if he likes it?” So, I said, “Sure, why not?” So, they sent a carrier for it, and Prince fell in love with it, and said it was the best recording bass he’s ever touched. He tried to buy it from me, but I couldn't sell it. He offered me a lot of money too. It was kind of like he basically proved what I already knew.
What were your live and recording rigs like back in the day?
[In the studio] I used a standard DI through an LA-2A compressor/limiter and an Ampeg SVT. [Live] I had six custom-made cabinets, two of which were loaded with Altec 15” speakers and the other four had Altec 12” speakers. For power, I had a rack of Crown DC300A [power amps] with an Ashley Audio preamp and an Ashley Audio compressor. And I had the [Moog] Taurus bass pedals. For keys, when I when I did use them, it was a Roland RS-202 String Machine, and a Roland VP-330 Vocoder. That was my premier live setup.
This idea about using a rig of components, like a Crown power amp, with an Ashley Audio pre-amp and custom-made cabinets, seems to be a generational thing. I don’t feel like I see much of that anymore. Do you think bass amps have just gotten better?
I think a lot of it has to do with the advent of in-ear monitors. When you use side fills and wedges, which is what we used, it was all about the sound pressure, without blowing your head off. So, you needed to have something coming off your actual amp on stage that moves air—you had to make your pants wave in the wind, so to speak. The sound pressure, for me, was the key—just having that feeling that you’re actually playing a bass, and it sounds like a bass. But I think you can get that through in-ears now. It may not feel exactly the same, but if you grow up with in-ears, then that’s what you’re used to. So you don’t need that bigness—you can recreate it with DIs and miking a small amp.
Since you brought up producing earlier, it seems to me that bass players often make good producers, because my theory is that our main job is to make everybody else sound good.
I think that bass players really are the most important guys in the band. We keep everything grounded, we don’t have to be flashy, unless it’s absolutely necessary, and we can think things through a lot better than a guitar player can. A great guitar player is always eight bars ahead of himself. They know where their fingers are going—it’s already figured out. And drummers, they have to concentrate, they have to be in the pocket all the time. If you’ve got a three-piece band, you have to be a little bit flashy on the drums. So, I think bass players, in general, kind of run the bands.
Have you seen the final cut of the Banger documentary yet?
They asked me to come down and check the audio to sign off on it, and the cut was almost home, but I’m looking forward to seeing the final file—I think it’s fabulous. It tells a great story. –BM
Check out Triumph’s video greeting for Record Store Day Canada: Here
For more on Banger Films and the upcoming Triumph documentary, titled, Triumph: Rock & Roll Machine, visit https://bangerfilms.com/