Triumph interview Mike Levine – Allied Forces 30th Anniversary Vinyl Reissue

by TW on October 12, 2011

Triumph Allied Forces Triumph interview Mike Levine   Allied Forces 30th Anniversary Vinyl Reissue

Triumph was one of the most popular hard rock acts of the 1980s, thanks largely to the success of the band’s 1981 release, Allied Forces. The album found its way onto turntables and radio airwaves across North America, as two singles, “Fight The Good Fight” and “Magic Power,” powered the power trio to new heights. Allied Forces was Triumph’s first album to go Platinum in the United States and would eventually sell more than 2.5 million copies worldwide. Triumph members Rik Emmett (guitars/vocals), Mike Levine (bass/keyboards) and Gil Moore (drums/vocals) had more than just a pair of hits on their hands, they had a fully accomplished record whose impact carried through on guitar-fueled anthems, heavy drums and rumbling bass, from the crushing opener, “Fool For Your Love,” to the anthemic closer, “Say Goodbye.”

Thirty years have passed since the landmark album’s initial release in September 1981, and Triumph fans can now celebrate with a special 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition Vinyl version of Allied Forces. This very limited reissue (just 1,100 copies) comes pressed on 180-gram vinyl and is housed in a full-color sleeve and cover faithful to the original release. The LP also includes an access card and Web link where fans can download the album in its entirety – best of all you can download the music as .WAV files and not lose any audio fidelity via compression. A free video download of a live performance of the song “Allied Forces” is included, too. Visit the Triumph website to get your copy today.

ClassicRockMusicBlog spoke with Triumph bassist Mike Levine about the 30thAnniversary of Allied Forces, the album’s impact and the challenges of reissuing a vinyl LP in 2011.

CRMB: It’s great to have new vinyl from Triumph. This has to be the band’s first vinyl release in 20 years.

Mike Levine: Yeah, I guess the last one that came out on vinyl, Classics, would have been 1989 – so 22 years ago. Yeah, it’s kind of cool. I’m like a little kid in a candy store.

Allied Forces has sold some 2.5 million copies to date. Can you put that in perspective?

Well, we did have a gold record [before Allied Forces] with Just A Game. But this album was kind of like, “the one that had to be.” It was not a tough album to make – we made the record company stay the heck away from us. We said, “let us make the record we want to make. You won’t be sorry.” [laughs] You know, and they said, “Well, we need to have our A&R guy there, and help choose the material… you guys should use a producer.” And I said, “Look, just stay out of our faces, please.” [laughs] And they did, and the album went on like you said to be hugely successful. God knows why, other than it was the kind of record that you put on and you didn’t take off until you finished Side 1, and then you wanted to hear what was on Side 2. That’s what, to me, made a successful record in those days.

Allied Forces is instantly recognizable from the cover art. You can’t get that same impact from a CD booklet.

Right. Part of the thrill of buying a record, for me, was going through the bins and going, “Wow, look at that cover! That’s fantastic!” You buy it just for the art, and, hopefully, the music was good, too. That was part of the whole process – you could pick something up and read it without needing reading glasses or going blind. [laughs] Just holding this album now, to me – I just got my copy a few days ago – holding an album again is like, “Once upon a time there was a thing called a 12-inch vinyl album.” [laughs]

Is the sound on this reissue appreciably better than the original?

Yes, definitely. There’s no hisses, crackles or pops [laughs], which most vinyl did have, at some point – you know after you played it a couple times. You’d go, “Oh yeah, there’s that little crackle right there on Side 2.” But now the quality of the vinyl is so much better. Back in those days the record companies used like ground up dinky toys, or whatever, and it was horrible quality. Now, it’s like pure vinyl, 180-grams – I don’t think, personally, that the 180-gram weight means a hell of a lot from an audio perspective. Tentatively speaking, it might hold the needle – the stylus – a little better than a thinner record, but I think it’s like pretty soon we’re gonna have 500-gram vinyl and then 8-pound vinyl [laughs] and you’ll need a semi to transport one copy home from the store. [laughs] But certainly, if you A-B’d the two, I’d say this has gotta be – gotta be – 30 to 40-percent better sounding. There’s no question in my mind – just knowing what I’m hearing off this record that I don’t remember hearing on vinyl back in 1981. There’s more room for the grooves, I guess, is the advantage from the vinyl point of view, and that’s what vinyl is about is depth. It’s the warmth and the depth that you get. The bass is so round and fat, whereas on a CD it’s very one-dimensional. Vinyl is like 3-D and a CD is like 2-D – or even 1-D. And an MP3? You might as well throw that in the garbage. [laughs] A CD reads in 1s and 2s, not 1.1, not 1.2, not 1.3, not 1.9, not 2.2, right. Vinyl reads the whole spectrum.

This reissue was sourced from the original master tapes. What condition were they in after 30 years?

We had three or four sets of them, thank goodness. Because before you even run the tape you put it on the machine do what’s called a shed test, to see if the oxide comes off the tape. We did that with one set, and there wasn’t much left. Nobody had ever seen a tape shed like that. [laughs] Usually if you get a little bit of shedding, it’s OK. What you do then is “bake” the tape – put it in an oven, certainly not a home oven – and you bake it for a couple days. I don’t know the technical part of it, but I just know the term, “We have to bake the tape.” [laughs] And that helps the oxide adhere properly to the backing of the tape. Then you might have one or two passes on it and then it’s dead, so you need to make a copy right away. On this one, we didn’t really have to bake it and bake it – it was in good shape. We used what’s called the EQ’d Running Master, which is what they would use to make a cassette from. It’s a direct copy of what went onto the lacquer. They’re made at the same time in the mastering room. So we used that, had the lacquers cut from that and away you go. It sounded really good. We had to tweak the frequency response a touch but not much – just a little bit of top end that wasn’t there on the tape. Other than that, it’s what Bob Ludwig did with it in 1981 and again in 1984 and ’95.

Triumph 080 photo shoot BW1 Triumph interview Mike Levine   Allied Forces 30th Anniversary Vinyl Reissue

Triumph, circa 1981 (from left): Gil Moore, Rik Emmett, Mike Levine

Vinyl sounds great but has some technical limitations. How close are the original studio recordings to the final mix that we hear?

I’ll tell you a story about that. The first album that Bob Ludwig – who is the best mastering engineer, was then and probably still is now – did with us was the Progressions Of Power album. He went in and promptly gave me total shit. He said, “You mixed this record so it sounded great to you, but you didn’t remember that it has to go onto a piece of vinyl. In your studio you use $300 or $400 compressors and limiters. My limiters and compressors cost like $15,000. You can’t compress this – you have to mix for the mastering process. So allow me to do my job to turn what you mixed into a ‘record.” And it was the best lesson I ever learned, because I learned it doesn’t have to sound perfect in the studio – there’s still one more step. So I learned to mix for the mastering process, didn’t compress it a lot, left a lot of headroom so he could boost levels. And he also had to make sure that the grooves didn’t extrude into each other and cause distortion. It was quite an art – it’s not a craft – it’s an actual art, that whole process. It’s kind of neat that you had to go through that. Now, you pound as level as you want onto a digital file and you can make a CD at any level, right? But then you had to be careful. You know how it is with records: you put on one and you had to set the volume at 8, and then you put on another one and have to set your volume back to 5, because it had more level on it.

Did you, Rik and Gil have a common goal for how you wanted the record to sound?

Not necessarily from an audio perspective – from a creative perspective we were trying to make the best record we could. From a technical point of view, we were also trying to make the best record we could. The only real parameter was – this one was our 5th album – was that it has to sound like Triumph. It can’t sound like anybody else. We do have a signature [sound], and we already had radio hits. From an audio point of view, it had to have whatever sound it is that a band gets. Right from the beginning, you don’t even have to hear the vocal, you hear the guitar and know that it’s Triumph, or you know that it’s Journey or you know that’s Van Halen – that signature thing. That was important to us – other than making our records sound better than anyone else’s. I used to force RCA to press the DJ copies – the radio copies – on virgin vinyl, and every time they’d fight with me. They’d go, “Well that costs an extra 30 cents,” and I’d go,”30 cents? Who cares? It’s gonna sound better than anyone else’s record.” And they’d counter, “Yeah, but it’s gonna cost an extra 30 cents.” And I’d say, “Yeah for a couple hundred records – $60. Hello, I’ll pay it out of my blue jeans.” And it was, “Well we don’t want to set that precedent.” [laughs] But I’d make them do it anyway. Then they’d want to put a sticker on it, to say it’s high quality. And I told them, “No you don’t. You just put it out there. You don’t advertise it. Radio guys will drop their needle on it and go, “Wow, that sounds sensational.”

Triumph always seemed to go the extra mile to deliver the goods.

When you say the word, “deliver,” that’s kind of what our motto was. It doesn’t matter what it costs, just deliver the best possible product that you can under the circumstances. If you had $50 grand to make a record or $20 grand to make a record in those days, you spent all the money making a record. If you’re making $5,000 a night on a show, you spend $4,000 of it on the production – not $1,000 on the production just so you could put money in your blue jeans. We always spent way more money on production than we should have, but that was Triumph. It’s always gotta be bigger, it’s gotta be better on this tour. “What about next time?” A lot of the records were made – the songs and arrangements were sometimes made to simulate what you’d do live with them, as well. We always wanted to project the image of when you put on a Triumph record you’d see the band in your mind’s eye.

Does this release signify more vinyl reissues to come from Triumph?

The Allied Forces vinyl reissue was more work than making a record and getting a record put out. [laughs] It was really hard to get anybody to make a 4-color inner sleeve – very, very difficult. The company that made the jackets, in Montreal, reluctantly agreed to do, but it’s not something they would normally do. And they do 90% of the jacket work for North American releases. So it was tough to get the inner sleeve done. Plus, I dug really deep in the archives and found the original 12-inch negatives for everything, and I gave them to the artist that was doing the reissue. He called me and said, “Mike, I can’t use them. There’s one guy that’s still got a machine that can actually process these negatives, but he’s using it in his kitchen as a stand for his coffee maker. [laughs] He’s got a $1 million dollar coffee stand in his kitchen – that’s what the thing cost new, years ago. So it was quite the experience.

Are you surprised by how much staying power Allied Forces has had?

It’s kind of cool. Obviously we feel very honored that people still think our music is vibrant and still current in a lot of ways. I suppose you could thank classic rock radio for some of that, and guys like you – media guys that get it, that get what went on in the past and were there and go, “Those were pretty good days. They were heady days. There was a lot of good music around, a lot of good concerts.” I was speaking to somebody in the business the other day and we were talking about how, maybe, a dozen records would come out in a month. Now, there’s like 400 or 500 a week! So there’s so much clutter out there it’s hard to figure out what’s good and what’s bad. You need time to figure it all out, and nobody’s got time in today’s world.

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