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InterviewsTime Goes By: An Interview with Mike Levine of Triumph

Posted on Tuesday, May 18 2004 @ 21:34:59 CDT by Elias Granillo
Heavy Metal Throughout the '70s and '80s, Canadian hard rock trio Triumph rocked many a stage with tireless classics like "Lay It On The Line," "Fight The Good Fight," "Never Surrender," and "A World Of Fantasy." New concert DVD releases this year and last year with Live At The US Festival and A Night Of Triumph Live — plus a video collection to come — have the Rock 'N' Roll Machine's "allied forces" blissfully headbanging away, wanting more. Sea Of Tranquility staffer Elias Granillo talked about many things Triumph-ant with co-founder, bassist/keyboardist, and producer, Mike Levine.

SoT: I was watching the new DVD, A Night Of Triumph Live, which I hadn't seen since 'VHS days,' and I was once again struck by how smoothly Rick Santers integrated into the Triumph sound, adding keys, rhythm guitar, and singing harmony with Rik [Emmett, lead guitarist/vocalist]. Since I remembered next to nothing about Rick Santers — save that he had a trio with his brother [drummer Mark Santers] — I did a search and found his official web site. I didn't know you & Gil had invited Rick to join Triumph permanently, following Rik's departure.

MIKE LEVINE: Rick's a great guitar player and singer, and we knew of him through Rik [who had produced Santers' Guitar Alley]. Rick wrote the original version of "Take A Stand," too. A Sport Of Kings was a much more textured album than we'd previously done, and had a lot of keyboards on it. I knew I would've had to be in one spot a lot of the time, playing keyboards, so we brought Rick in to cover some of that, and guitar and backup vocals.

SoT: That live version of "Take A Stand" is great. The voices of 'Rik & Rick' aren't too noticeably different on that one. Did you also take Rick on the Surveillance tour?

ML: We never toured for Surveillance, but we did play some live dates, not a full tour, for Edge Of Excess. We played the Milwaukee Summerfest. We had Phil X on guitar for that album, and live — and we did have Rick Santers on that tour, too. It was a little tense, at first. Since it wasn't "all original members," anymore, we wondered if people were going to throw tomatoes at us! Once we got going, though, the crowd was into it.

SoT: With two-thirds of the original lineup still there, I'm sure audiences were glad to see you back after a few years off. I obtained the CD of Live At The US Festival before the DVD. Right off the bat I noticed how ballsy, how groovin' the versions of some tunes are, versus those on Stages. "When The Lights Go Down" sounds huge; so does "A World Of Fantasy." And "Never Surrender" is just incredible.

ML: We were listening to the masters and we realized "Never Surrender" never sounded better live than it did, that day. It turned out to be a great show.

SoT: It all looks AND sounds great! Not to mention you flew in from Florida practically the day before. So there's one more Triumph DVD coming up, this year?

ML: I don't know when we'll get around to finishing it, and getting it out, but it'll come out when it comes out. That's the next phase. It's a lot of work. The DVDs are dual-layered, remixed in 5.1. [by sound engineer Richard Chycki]. Instead of saying the hell with it, and remixing in 5.0 and putting out a cheaper quality transfer, we said 'screw it.' It's not all about the money. It's about giving the fans a quality product. You've got to put your best foot forward.

SoT: Is there a chance we may get to see some really cool old stuff, from '78 and earlier? Put it out, we'll buy it, end of story!

ML: We didn't videotape a lot in those days because video cameras were just coming out, and those things weighed something like thirty-five pounds, apiece. So we didn't have a video team. You never know, we might package some stuff just for sale on the web site. We do have an old concert on 16mm from 1978 that we might fix and put out on its own.

SoT: That sounds great! From the Just A Game tour?

ML: No, actually, that was still in support of Rock 'N' Roll Machine. It was a stopgap, right before Just A Game. It was like a mini-tour; we were playing some smaller venues. It was filmed at Townsend University in Baltimore.

SoT: Are there any unreleased songs lurking in the archives, that you might someday release on a retrospective?

ML: There are, and we will…eventually! And that's pretty much it! (laughs)

SoT: (laughs) You plead the 5th! [mimics Gil] 'Mike, don't tell him anything!'

ML: Unless it was something where we cut a bed track and added something on top, like a vocal or whatever, and then we tossed it out because we thought it sucked! But it's some work restoring old tapes — you have to 'bake' the tapes, remix, [etc.]

SoT: I'd like to go back to the early days, now. Could you shed a little light on your pre-Triumph days. I understand you and Gil go way back, and that you were a member of Motherlode's third lineup.

ML: That was a long time ago. (laughs) I played in a lot of bands, a lot of R & B bands. Then I went into the record business, for a while, and after that, I started writing jingles. I also got into management.

SoT: Okay, you're not that old!

ML: I was young while in the record business, though! I don't remember exactly when I met Gil, physically met him, I mean. There was this place, called Yorkville. There were coffee shops, twenty bands would play every week. Everyone would go down, buy pot and get wrecked. But that's where I met Gil.

SoT: Out of Triumph's discography, which albums hit gold and platinum?

ML: Just A Game and Never Surrender are gold; Allied Forces is platinum, and so is Thunder Seven. Since we had to deal with two different record labels [RCA and MCA], we actually didn't get the up-to-date figures for a while. Once somebody finally got that information to us, some records proved to have sold a little better than we'd thought. More certifications are coming. Allied Forces is closer to double-platinum, now.

SoT: No doubt; that was a huge record. So which album is your favorite?

ML: I'd have to think…probably the first one…

SoT: Really? In The Beginning?

ML: …because we were so rough, we were so bad! (laughs)

SoT: I doubt any of your fans think so! Say, the word to use instead of "rough" is "raw"!

ML: I like that! That's a good word. I'm going to use that. 'It's raw, baby!' (laughs)

SoT: Just go 'Gil, it's not rough…it's raw!'

ML: Probably Allied Forces, really. It was a great time, the crew was going wild, we were going wild, we were coming off of an album [Progressions Of Power] that didn't do too well. Sometimes recording an album can be like going in for a root canal, but Allied Forces was very easy to record. That was more like going out for a great steak, and having some fine wine or hundred year-old cognac. We just said "Fuck the record company!" and "Fuck everybody!" and just did it. Plus, we had the studio from '81 on. So, yeah, I'd say Allied Forces is my favorite album.

SoT: Mine's Never Surrender, the one right after that. It was Thunder Seven for the longest time, because it was the first Triumph album I heard, back in '84. Never Surrender really cooks. I always tell my friends who are too lazy to pick up the '90s remasters — they've got the DVDs, though — to do so because certain songs possess a quality or qualities that are missed in a live setting. "When The Lights Go Down" has an acoustic intro & outro, versus electric. The instrumental prelude to "Never Surrender" segues perfectly, and synth bass is prominent in the beginning. Which synths did you use throughout the years?

ML: I used Moog Taurus Pedals, and I had a vocoder and synth, might've been Korg. I don't remember exactly, it's been a while. And then when the Yamaha DX7 came out, of course I went ahead and got that. [E-mu Emulator and PPG Waveterm synthesizers were also used on A Sport Of Kings.]

SoT: Did you play with any of the other Toronto-based rock bands like Rush, Saga, April Wine, etc.?

ML: I don't think we ever played with Rush. I think Saga might have opened for us, once. Loverboy opened for us, and Bryan Adams opened for us, too, before he made it big. They're not Canadian, but we played the Rose Bowl with Journey…

SoT: The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California?

ML: Right. It was Journey and Triumph, and maybe another band, and we set the house record for the time. 118,000 seats sold. Journey rocked, they were great — they were so good, it scared me!

SoT: What music do you listen to when you just want to chill out?

ML: I'm a big reggae man! I like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs. You know, the cool guys.

SoT: Are you involved in any musical ventures, nowadays?

ML: Not really, nothing major. Sometimes I'll jam, or do a demo session with the younger bands that book time in the studio.

SoT: I've got a friend who wants to know if you're originally from Toronto or thereabouts.

ML: Yeah, I am.

SoT: Maybe it's the straw hat you're wearing in the documentary [on A Night Of Triumph Live] that got him thinking?

ML: Yeah, maybe Arkansas…! (laughs)

SoT: I liked the hat, myself! Thanks for making this happen.

ML: Keep the faith, brother! Maybe we'll do this again, sometime.

SoT: I hope so! Take care.

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