20 Questions For A Guitar God
by Dan Brisebois
Rik Emmett is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the greatest guitarists ever to plug in an amp. He was a cornerstone of Triumph while penning some of Canada’s greatest rock anthems, and has now recorded his sixth solo disc, completing the GUITAR TRILOGY. Whether it’s the blues, classical, acoustic or balls-grabbing metal, he’s done it all. Aside from music, he’s an accomplished cartoonist and on top of all that …
JUST A REALLY COOL GUY FOR DOING THIS! …
DB: Who’s your favourite Bugs Bunny character?
RE: I’m partial to the little Spaceman, cuz I dug his voice, and he was before his time, with a fashion sense that made him wear a pair of Michael Jordan basketball shoes.
DB: When you left Triumph, where did you see your career by this time, and how close is it now?
RE: I don’t predict “careers” from a success point of view, because that’s often a crapshoot. AND I DO MEAN CRAP. But from a content point of view, it’s rounding into a satisfying shape now. Frankly, I had hoped that it wouldn’t have taken this long, but there are plenty of mitigating factors … raising a big family, for one. The competitive Crap Business, for two. Which it took me a while to work my way out of – not necessarily intentionally, either. If I had scored some resounding commercial success, I don’t know if I would have made it to where I am now, artistically speaking. I’d like to think I would have had the guts to get here faster, and with more sophisticated resources and deeper pockets: but who can say? The road I took, the choices I made – they got me to here, now. This kind of conjecture is a little entertaining, I suppose, but it’s also a waste of good time and energy – there’s only one reality – so let’s get on with it.
DB: Would you prefer to be remembered as a song-writing genius or are you content being a guitar-god?
RE: I am neither genius nor deity. I’m a writer and a musician with plenty of limitations and frustrations. I may be a little more ambitious than the next guy, some might say strong-willed, or simply a thick-headed egotist: but my strength, I think, is my versatility – which deceives a lot of people into thinking I am more than the sum of my parts: jack of many trades, master of none. If I’m a God, what does that make Danny Gatton? Or Tuck Andress? Or Steve Morse … or John Williams … or Jim Hall … or Pat Metheny? Or … or … or …
DB: What sort of music was played in your household growing up?
RE: t was the discovery of the yadda yadda that in fact led to many years of blindness and hair on my palms. I play what I can, as best I can. I play what I write: I try to play what I hear in my head, or what starts coming from my hands: the “style” of it starts to fall into existing categories, because it makes it easier for me to build themes that make sense (the “long line” of Aaron Copland)
DB: Being from Toronto, were you brain-washed into thinking they had a hockey team or did you go with your gut and cheer for the ‘Habs?
RE: My brother Russell is a truly devoted Habs fan. This season has been tough for him. You will recall I was photographed for the back of the Allied Forces LP in a Habs jersey, circa ’83-’84. They were a class outfit, for sure, and my brother never let me forget it. Listen – I’m a jock – I love most sports. Especially team sports – hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, football … I appreciate good play, no matter where I can find it. I have a love/hate thing with the Leafs because I remember Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuck and a group of old clutch and grab, dump and chase guys stealing a few cups in the ’60’s. (AND NO SMART-ASS EDITORIAL COMMENTS!)
I remember the Lady Byng quality of Mr David Keon. I also remember the horrible betrayal and aroma that arose during the Ballard reign. Gretzky singlehandedly killed the Burns/Gilmour run (was it ’93? I think they had a good shot at knocking off the Habs that year – they had the right kind of team, the right kind of momentum) I am a huge Gretzky fan. But I am also a great admirer of Ken Dryden – his book, ‘The Game’, is one of the finest and most insightful sports book I have ever read – it is on a par with some of Roger Angell’s baseball writing. So it is interesting, and a source of some hope, to see Dryden bring his influence to bear on the Leaf franchise, and to attempt to bring some of that insight from the Habs tradition and glory into the team steps out onto the ice. But yeah – I’m brainwashed. Cut me … I bleed true blue Argos, Jays and Leafs. I’m a Hogtown homer – love ’em, hate ’em, them’s OUR boys!
DB: Did you ever relate to the Toronto Toros and that whole WHA thing?
RE: Nope. Seemed like such a waste to have Gretzky and Howe and a few others over there, toiling away where it didn’t matter. Lord Stanley and Art Ross were not relating to that whole WHA thing – it was like, ummmm, 2nd division English football.
DB: What inspires you nowadays when it comes to songwriting?
RE: Same stuff that always did – a combination of chords, a phrase or lyric, a little snatch of melody, a mood that sits in a groove that starts suggesting a set of changes that breeds a melody line. ..
DB: In your opinion, is it easier or harder today for Canadian artists to get their start, as opposed to when you broke on to the scene?
RE: Harder. More competition – more of an international marketplace. From what I can tell, the “scene” is pretty unstable right now – I’m kind of glad that I’m not really a part of it, jockeying for position there: consequently, I’m not much of an expert to ask about this. Ask Val Azzoli. He’s a princemaker now.
DB: What artists, not necessarily cartoonists, do you admire?
RE: Recording artists – Sting, Pat Metheny. See all guitarists listed above. Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell. Other kinds of artists – I’ve been reading a lot of John Irving lately. I like comedians – Dennis Miller, Jim Carrey. I watch a lot of movies – I admire a lot of actors and actresses. Really liked Shakespeare in Love – which also had an exceedingly clever screenplay. I see a lot of parallels between what movie writers/directors/actors do and what I try to do. They go inside characters and stories – they lose themselves. I go inside music and songs and lose myself there (when it’s good).
DB: How do you assess the current Canadian music scene?
RE: I haven’t a clue, my good man. So much of the “Canadian” music scene is dominated by the distribution lock of the foreign-owned and operated major labels that a lot of it is really just a U.S. branch plant industry – and we’re talking the same old top-o’-the-mountain trickle-down theory that gives us Celine and Shania and Sarah and Bryan and BNL and CTD, etc. I have no idea how all that works, other than its all about moving large numbers of UNITS baby. These people are the nobility, the Sun Kings and Queens, with their courtiers and their politically heavyweight management connections – priority talent on the roster, to be sure. That’s a game I’m not interested in playing right now.
DB: How has your songwriting evolved since going solo?
RE: More possibilities, more freedom, so a wider palette. Older, hopefully, wiser, not locked into a band image, which dictates a stylistic, um, levelling of creativity to fit the package. I have much more knowledge and experience – which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes an inhibiting thing. I have become more aware of when I am finding my own voice, or at least, what I’d set out to try and find.
DB: Absolutely no one covers more different guitar styles than you! Take me through the process. Do you consciously write, say a blues song, for the next record, or do you just come across lyrics and then put them with whatever you’re in the mood for at the time?
RE: Sometimes a riff, or a melody over a chord change, suggests a ‘blues’ – sometimes jazz, sometimes classical, sometimes folk, sometimes rock, whatever. Sometimes a lyric develops and it’s pretty straightforward and has a sly sense of humour and a little double entendre thing going: that says blues. Good song ideas start unconsciously, spontaneously. Then they start taking shape in the conscious writing and rewriting. You know the old saw – 5 % inspiration, 95 % perspiration.
DB: What was your favourite SCTV sketch or character?
RE: John Candy’s Johnny LaRue passing out in the gutter on a frozen Christmas night – and getting his Xmas wish, the crane shot. But there were a lot of classic moments. Tex and Edna Boil. Andrea’s cleaning lady who couldn’t speak English. I loved the chemistry between Levy and Flaherty as co-anchors – and between Moranis and Thomas – the one that hits me is the Bob Hope and Woody Allen golf game. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
DB: Isn’t it absolutely ridiculous we can have some jackass sit on the Senate, pay him the usual inflated amount, but live in Mexico (unable to live in a cold climate because of a rare skin condition — a Canadian unable to live in a cold climate ?!?!?) and only set foot in the Great White North ONE TIME IN OVER 5 YEARS ?!
RE: Yep. Nice work if you can get it though. You just don’t want it getting around that you’re a BLOOD-SUCKING LEACH ON THE PUBLIC TEAT!!!
DB: During your storied career you’ve obviously played with an incredible “who’s who” list … who would you most like to play with that you haven’t already?
RE: Sting, Metheny, Ry Cooder. I’d love to get up some time with the Tragically Hip and blow my brains out for a few minutes. I’d love to play changes for Ed Bickert and listen to the incredibly tasteful choices he makes … ok, I’ve already done that, but I’d love to do it again!
DB: What do you think of the current craze of rushing out tribute albums to almost everyone but Milli Vanilli? I hear they tried to put one together but couldn’t find anyone who could lip-synch the words. ….
RE: hehehehehe … Poor Milli and Vanilli. To me, it’s like the tragedy of Ben Johnson, or the incredibly stupid folly of Clinton’s Whitewater turning into Monica-gate, these are the poor suckers who got caught, and made examples of, when really, that phony front, with crap going on BEHIND the scenes is happening all the time – people pretending to be something they ain’t.
DB: Where would you like to see your cartooning career take you?
RE: Straight into the licensing deals that only Charles Schultz has known! Career???? I have no cartooning career to speak of. If I had one, I would wish to be as consistently good as Gary Larson – another of my heroes. And I hear he hung it up with dignity at the top of his game to go and play jazz guitar!
(editor’s note: Bummer of a birthmark Hal!)
DB: What are your thoughts on the fact that you helped shape an entire generation of musicians around the world?
RE: Surely you jest. Or you hype, with sweet hot air up my butt. Thanks. Oh, there were some guitar players who probably followed some of my advice through the Guitar Player Magazine columns over the years – but they would have been getting other influences along the way, surely making more of an impression than my monthly two-cents worth. I have been happy to keep singing and playing and writing and making recordings. Beyond that, it starts to become other people’s business, and I can’t control it – so I don’t try. Matt Groenig is influencing a whole generation. MTV did. The Beatles did. Elvis did. Sinatra did. The Spice Girls and The Backstreet Boys are. I’m way, way under the radar that registers that kind of stuff, pal. It feels great to know that I’ve provided a little soundtrack for some people’s lives, and that my music has had a positive impact in someone’s life. But I’d have to be some kind of fool to believe that I have shaped an entire generation of musicians. Besides – if – IF it ever happened to come true, it would never be because I set out to do it. Man – that’s too Madonna for me.
DB: What should be done to the person who invented the glowing hockey puck?
RE: Nothin’. They are surely fated to die a strange and incomprehensible death, followed by an eternity in hell, whizzing around propelled by their own never-ending blue angels … which glow red when they REALLY start rocketing around ….
DB: In your opinion, what should governments be doing to ensure the homegrown arts community is nurtured?
RE: Start by trying to give Canadians control of their own “arts” distribution networks (good luck fat chance). Then, keep legislatively kicking the asses of the broadcasters who only want to mimic the programming formats and formulas of America (yeah sure like THAT’S gonna happen). Then – start to realize that investment in the ARTS makes economic sense, and also builds national character and culture that is priceless. (Can you see Chretien getting behind that concept?) Then, keep working towards eliminating middlemen in the food chain of government money making its way to the homegrown arts communities (in defiance of human history). Invest in youth arts programs, recognize the truly great teachers, and provide them with the resources to do an incredible job. Establish the ARTS as a strong part of everyday life by getting it back into publich school programs in a huge way (this COULD happen – we just need to convince governments to divert most of the money from lotteries and casino gambling taxes straight to ARTS education).
Getting off the soapbox now. Nice talking at you. ….
Kudos to Jaimie Vernon of Bullseye Records for helping set the wheels in motion
… And special thanx go out to Rik’s publicist Rick Wharton – THE CONSPIRACY GUY ….
Absolutely fantastic – super – tremendous – just a great guy … WAY TO GO BUDDY – YOU DA MAN SPUD!!