By Perry Stern, Canadian Musician, October 1986
Whoever invented the term “Rock -n- Roll Machine” must have had a band very much like Triumph in mind. In the face of radio programmers that have gone soft-headed with yuppieism, against an ever-changing backdrop of fashion conscious video personalities calling themselves musicians, and in the wake of a tidal wave of pseudo-disco and stadium anthems, Triumph relentlessly churns out a style of music that the experts regularly pronounce to be deader than a doornail. And if it weren’t for the millions of people who regularly buy Triumph records and attend Triumph concerts, the experts would be right.
Mike Levine, Gil Moore and Rik Emmett have been making records for ten years now (“eleven in September,” Emmett corrects). The Sport of Kings is their ninth and, though they’re loathe to admit it, its importance in the future of Triumph’s career is pivotal. It’s not so much a matter of how well the record will sell, a band rarely has had so solid a base of fan support as this one, rather it seems really to be more important that the album be appreciated. And it’s not as though the band will crumble if things don’t work out as well as they hope, but the prospect of making the tenth album will be that much less attractive. Recording, on any level, is hard work, but for Triumph, The Sport of Kings may just as well have been called The Record From Hell.There’s something milquetoast about seeking “appreciation” (a word the band would never use), but in the context of heavy rock music, being appreciated by one’s peers, by the press, by record companies – or, rather, not being appreciated is the albatross around many a guitar-star’s neck, People just don’t seem to take the art form seriously, But the fans do, and one of Triumph’s greatest triumphs has been the ability to look their critics squarely in the eye and wait for as long as it takes for them to blink. And the critics always have to blink first because, in the end, they have to admit that Triumph is one of Canada’s, if not North America’s most successful rock acts. We’re talking consistency here, and endurance.
A year-and-a-half ago, after many months of litigation, Triumph made the move from RCA to MCA. The album Thunder Seven (which went platinum) was released almost immediately, and the double live set Stages (which is now close to double platinum status) followed after about nine months. For the band, and for the record company, the next release would actually be the “first” MCA / Triumph release because, as Moore describes it, the other two albums were more or less “inherited” from RCA. “They made only one request in the entire first year-and-a-half of our relationship, ” Moore says of MCA, and it was to, “use a producer and have it be Ron Nevison.” Now while that may seem an innocuous request, especially with Nevison fresh off the success of his efforts with Heart, Survivor and Ozzy Osborne, the fact of the matter was that Triumph never had more than a co-producer on any of their previous albums. Even still, the band met the request with enthusiasm. The prospect of working with a hot producer piqued the boys’ interest and the possibility of getting radio airtime with the help of Nevison’s expert ministrations was a key factor in setting the deal. You didn’t hear heavy rock on AC radio until Heart’s last album with Nevison at the helm came out, and with the door broken down MCA wanted Triumph to get inside, quick. “They were looking for the guy with the magic wand,” Moore says. The plan was simple. Starting in January, Nevison and his partner Mike Klink, would start working with the band in pre-production. After the bed tracks were laid, Nevison would split to record Night Ranger (a project he never completed), and Klink would be in charge of the overdubs of vocals and guitars. When that was through, Nevison would return for the final mix and mastering. Nevison said he had some songs, exclusive songs, that he would bring with him into the project. Everyone wanted this record to be he band’s most popular and they felt that more variety in the song writing would be desirable for embracing a larger, broader audience. “It was an effort,” Klink says, “predetermined by the record company and the band, to get a commercial sound.”
The plan was simple. Get some good tunes, get some expert outside input, get a real tight sound, then run the flag up the pole and see who salutes. After eight albums done their way, Triumph was prepared to give the other way a shot. They would even do some recording in LA. What the hell, they thought, maybe a change of location will do some good. But even the best laid plans, especially simple ones, sometimes go awry.
All three members of Triumph are quick to point out that they hold no grudges against Nevison professionally. Levine, who worked most closely with him, calls Nevison a “brilliant recording technician,” but in the insular world of a three-piece group, Nevison was like a bull in a china shop. The role of the producer is to take charge, give direction, make decisions, and there are a number of ways you can go about it, You can cajole, seduce, or demand, and Nevison opted for the latter. “It was his way or the highway,” Emmett recalls. Levine would add later, punctuated with wry laughter, that it was an ineffective way to deal with “a bunch of old farts like us.” During pre-production there was plenty of talking, lots of room for discussion, but that all changed and, as Levine says, “you have to be consistent. ” When it came time to actually lay the bed tracks, Nevison took complete control and the band felt shut out. Levine said it was as though Nevison was “changing horses midstream. ” Moore is more colorful; “It was like the full moon came out and hair started growing out of his face and hands.”
Up to a point the band was more than willing to take it all in stride. They had made their commitment to Nevison, and there was his track record to consider (let alone a contract), and he did get an excellent drum sound for the beds, so everybody grinned and bore it. Feeling a little stepped-on was probably a “natural reaction” for Emmett. As far as being even slightly resentful about the temporary loss of control, he says that, “I think if you’re artistic and conscientious about your work you feel that way” when someone else is in charge. “Ron was the first guy in eleven years to be let into the family circle,” Emmett explains, “and this guy wants to be the patriarch.”
Everything was fine until someone heard “One Chance,” one of the “exclusive” tracks Nevison brought to the project, on the radio. And then the video was seen on TV. Emmett gives Nevison the benefit of the doubt by allowing that the producer had his eye on the American market and that a domestic release by the song’s Canadian writer, Stan Meissner, wouldn’t effect a Triumph version, but Moore says, “We felt it hurt our integrity somewhat.” Arguing over the practicality of keeping the song, and the reasoning behind Nevison’s claims of “exclusivity” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nevison cited “artistic differences” and never returned to the project after his initial involvement with the bed tracks ended. “Producers leave records all the time,” Levine explains with a shrug, and Nevison’s departure was hardly treated as a catastrophe. He is even philosophic about it. “When I heard about “One Chance” I knew we needed a new song right away. I phoned Ricky and told him we needed a good Triumph rock -n- roll tune and that he should go away and just woodshed `til he got one. The song ‘Somebody’s Out There Somewhere’ turned out so good it’ll be the first single. Out of all negatives comes something positive.” The problem wasn’t so much that Nevison had quit, it was that the record was set up to accommodate his working style, It was too late in the day to re-schedule and re-locate the recording of an album that was half finished. It was already mid-May, and the record was to be finished in June.
The guys in Triumph aren’t the kind of people who spend a lot of time kicking themselves if they think a mistake’s been made. Not with studio time booked. When Mike Levine talks about the band “united”, you know he means it, and that, as a rock -n- roll machine, there would be no stopping the Triumph train once it go back on track. With Nevison gone, Klink was now the nominal producer – a situation that no one had a problem with. “It started out as a 50/50 proposition with Ron,” says Klink, “and then it became 100 per cent mine. It was only hard as far as the hours were concerned.” Without Nevison, Levine had to re-gear his thinking about his role in the project and play catch-up with Klink. Now at the overdub phase, he had to hear all the tracks and all the takes so that he could be sure that he was satisfied with the work so far. Separated by the according process, the band had not been communicating with each other about how they thought things were going. With Nevison gone, they were free to vent their frustration about the “experiment,” and rallied around each other.
Because Nevison and Klink wanted to work on their home turf, the recording and mixing of The Sport of Kings was done primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. None of the band was pleased with the situation (if you owned the best recording studio in the country, would you want to record anywhere else?) but they were resigned to it. The person who found it hardest was Levine, who returned to his traditional band role as man-behind-the-console with Klink. Moore says that it was hard for Mike because he had “no point of reference” for how the rooms in LA could sound. For example, while Triumph usually records their drum tracks in the empty warehouse next door to Metalworks, this time Moore played in LA. “The room was interesting because of its volume, ” Moore recalls. He estimates its dimensions as 65x65x241 “The room had a controlled ambiance,” Emmett adds. “There were ambient mikes that were high up in the back of the room so that it sounded like the kick was already gated. The delay it had sounded like gated reverb with ambient sustain.” Unfortunately, though, Moore felt that there was “no value in the close miking.”
For his part, Klink held up admirably and hung on to the basic plan he and Nevison had for the album from the beginning. A fastidious engineer, and a stickler for detail, Klink wanted to give Triumph a “tighter sound, more structured than it was before.” While recording the drums he had the snare heads changed daily. He made Emmett retune his guitar after every take (“It drove me crazy,” he confesses.) “It was a little difficult at first, but I think they need that outside input. They’re not used to working as hard as I pushed them, doing parts over, getting them right,” In the end, during the arduous mixing process, he and Levine worked together, eighteen hours a day for thirty days. Laughing, satisfied with the final product, delighted to be finished, Levine states categorically that, “There’s no way I’m ever going to record or mix a record in LA again.”
If The Sport of Kings was, in fact, The Record From Hell for Triumph, it was a hard time born from a great idea. With a new label behind them, and a fresh outlook on the music scene, they wanted to break out of the cubbyhole that most of the industry had slotted them in. “Radio is ridiculously tight now,” Moore explains. “It’s really unfortunate for new talent. Shrinking playlists do nothing but destroy an industry that radio helped to create. ” For some time now it’s been be rigueur to trash bands like Triumph in the press. “The fortunate thing for us,” says Emmett, “is that we’ve got a base of fans who believe in us and who know they aren’t going to get short-changed no matter what media shifts there are. ” Ever mindful of this Klink explains that while they may have gone for a more “pop” oriented sound he knew that, “to take a band like Triumph with a heavier rock sound, you have to make sure it still represents the band. ” No one involved with the project thinks even one Triumph fan will be disappointed, and that, to a certain extent, is the bottom line. “A learning experience” is how everyone, Levine, Moore, Emmett, and Klink, regards the making of Triumph’s ninth album. If nothing else, the band learned how strong their bonds were to each other, and how well they could pull together when the going got tough. Levine says: “The bottom line for any band on the success ladder (if you want to climb it) is you have to trust some people, but you have to trust yourself first. You have to at least think you know what you’re doing and not let anybody convince you that you don’t. As soon as you become insecure about what you’re doing you’re not going to be able to perform properly no matter what your task is. If anybody is allowed to instill any self doubt in you, it will affect your performance. ”
The plan was simple, and though the course may have been rougher than they expected and they changed jockeys mid-race, Mike Levine, Gil Moore and Rik Emmett are happy to be standing in the winner’s circle with The Sport of Kings.