Unsung: Simply Saucer

If the name Simply Saucer is new to you, you should immediately check out Cyborgs Revisited, a collection of their 70’s recordings, including a brilliant six-song EP recorded  by Bob and Daniel Lanois in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as other demos, a two-song single, and several live recordings, including three songs recorded on the roof of a mall on a Saturday afternoon in 1975. I can only imagine what the unsuspecting shopper’s reactions were to aggressive psych-punk songs like”Nazi Apocalypse” and “Illegal Bodies”! The album displays a combination of well-chosen influences ranging from The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, to Hawkwind and krautrock, along with a taste for avant-garde electronics and lead singer Edgar Breau’s keen sense of songwriting which shouldn’t get lost in the pysch-punk melee.

Here’s a taste of the good stuff:

I recently interviewed Edgar Breau  via email, to find out more about what it was like breaking ground and being the first proto-punk band in the city, and about all the ups and downs that come along with that distinction. We also spoke about his life since Simply Saucer called it a day in 1979. You can keep up with Breau’s acitivities over at http://www.edgarbreau.com/.  Enjoy!

1. What was Hamilton, Ontario like for you as a young music fan, pre-Saucer? Did you get to see a lot of good local bands and bigger touring acts live? Do any concert experiences from that period stand out in your memory?

It was a very rough part of the city where the steel mills were located. My friends were all avid record collectors listening to the Kinks, Velvet Underground, Pretty Things, Yardbirds, Byrds, Moby Grape, Terry Riley, Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Seeds; later on Can and Faust. I had very broad tastes aside from the cult bands and in my collection. I had Lightnin Hopkins and English folk like Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Dando Shaft, Nick Drake and jazz records like Coltrane, Ornette Coleman; English jazz-fusion like Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Nucleus as well as Canadian artists like Kensington Market, The Paupers, Ugly Ducklings, Gordon Lightfoot and American songwriters like Tim Hardin, Dylan, Fred Neil etc. etc. etc.; so it wasn’t musically such a large leap for me to play more folk-oriented music and eventually I became a disciple, shall we say, of John Fahey who influenced my own guitar playing a great deal. Our concert experiences mainly took place in Toronto where we could see many acts like the Stooges (Raw Power-era), Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Lou Reed (the Velvets played there as well in an outdoor fest). Actually the Exploding Plastic Inevitable Andy Warhol-era VU played Macmaster University in Hamilton in the sixties, but I missed that. We did attend many concerts here in town. At a local arena I saw Quicksilver Messenger Service, Dr. John, the Band and The Jefferson Airplane played here as well. Locally, Crowbar were a popular band, blues rock, soul bands and some prog bands were playing, but NO BAND played the kind of music we began to play.

2. In the book “Treat Me Like Dirt”, you touch briefly on a hitchhiking trip you took across Canada as being a really formative experience for you. I find that really interesting since hitchhiking is kind of a thing of the past, yet it used to be a pretty common thing for adventurous young people to do. What were some of the things that happened on that trip?

I had read Kerouac in high school as well as the Electric Kool Aid Acid test, and my hitchhikin’ buddy did as well, so were decided to thumb to Vancouver. There were a lot of kids doing this at the time and so the government set up shelters where you could crash for the night and get cheap food and coffee. We panhandled in Vancouver, stayed at a Men’s Shelter in Kamloops, let’s say “indulged” in some psychedelic offerings of LSD-25, slept at the side of the highway, met a lot of ‘freaks’ and characters on the road, drove in a hearse in Saskatchewan with a couple of 80-year old farmers drinking whiskey, got stranded in WAWA (everyone did) and finally ended up in Winnipeg where we met a couple of hippie chicks, hung out in the park right next to the Manitoba legislature and had some weird experiences there, my friend John met his future Ojibway wife, I had a ‘bad trip’. I guess it was in essence the usual stuff that went on in those days.

3. The book also talks about you being a huge record collector that loved cult bands like The Stooges, Syd Barrett, Hawkwind, VU…etc. How does someone in early-70’s Hamilton even hear about someone like Hawkwind? Are you still a big music collector?

Well we read all the magazines at the time: Fusion, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, and for me a lot of it came from record reviews. Wayne McGuire wrote the Aquarian Journal I think for Fusion, which I believe came out of Boston, and he turned me on to John Fahey and later Mel Lyman, who for a time I was interested in. His tastes went from Fahey to the Velvet Underground and Coltrane, and that influenced my own record collecting. I’m not as big a music collector right now but I still check musicians out live. A lot of my time is spent working on my own music and guitar playing. I’m a prolific songwriter and have a large back catalogue, including unreleased Simply Saucer material, some of which we recorded in Detroit in the summer for a forthcoming vinyl EP. David Byers, an original member, was from Holland and turned us on to Dutch bands like Group 1856 and Wally Tax and the Outsiders, Super Sister, and of course Savage Rose who he loved. I have the complete collection in vinyl including many rarities. There were a group of us who had record spinoffs in which we drank a lot of cheap wine and would play our latest record finds and rate them. David wanted us to go in a more N.Y. Dolls, Roxy Music direction with costumes and make up, the whole bit, and he eventually left to form his own band. I was hanging with him tonight we are still good friends.

4. I read that you were a member of the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society. This might sound strange, but what did membership entail?

Well it gave me access to penpals, one of whom was Craig Bell out of Cleveland who told me about his bands the Saucer, Mirrors,  and later on Rocket from the Tombs, who morphed into Pere Ubu. He knew all the cool Cleveland musicians and eventually came up here one afternoon looking for me, but unfortunately I was out of town that day. We corresponded for a while. There was also a magazine called Terrapin with news about Syd, and a membership card which I carried around with me in my wallet for many years. I believe I was the first Canadian member.

5. In the liner notes of the 2003 reissue of Cyborgs Revisited, Bruce “Mole” Mowat mentions trying track down someone named Wally Lay who recorded a 1973 rehearsal by the early six-man configuration of Simply Saucer, which would be the only recording of that line-up. Any luck finding him in the 8 years since?

No, it’s one of those great Simply Saucer mysteries where he went and whether he still has the tapes. I’m still in touch with the two early members of the band who left: David Byers went on to form The Shangs, and Paul Colilli is the Dean of Studies for Italian medieval philosophy, culture and culture and theology at Laurentia University in Sudbury Ontario . David, Paul and I along with Simply Saucer bassist Kevin Christoff and present members Dan Wintermans and Steve Foster recorded about 3 hours of improvised music in February 2010 in the spirit of that original 6-piece configuration and we are planning to release a 45-minute ambient Simply Saucer CD on my own Flying Inn Recordings label in the new year.

6. Saucer were the first real underground band to come from Ontario, and then when more underground bands finally sprouted there who were more aligned with what became codified as punk, you guys didn’t really click with any of them musically or personality-wise. Were there any bands around in those days that you did look at as friends and peers, or were you really just sort of out there on your own? Did you crave having a scene of local bands that you could relate to or did you enjoy being a total outsider?

No, we didn’t hang out much with other bands, especially in ’73-75 when there were no other bands around here doing what we were. Eventually we made forays into the Toronto punk and new wave scene where we became better known. I think the cult-artist thing was always an appeal as so many of our musical heroes were just that; but eventually we tried to break out of that and altered the sound of the band somewhat, frustrated with our lack of commercial success.

7. The stories about Simply Saucer’s live shows make it sound like you were usually met with either repulsion or indifference from your crowds, yet you kept at it for about six years on and off. There must have been some really good shows in there, right? Did it ever feel like you were starting to cultivate a fan base?

We did have a local following and there were great shows that people still talk about. Gary Topp the Toronto promoter who put us on a bill with Pere Ubu still maintains we blew them off the stage…lol. We played another show with them here recently. We could have built on the fan base and had some really good reviews for the single but we had failed to get a release for what later became Cyborgs Revisited and no one knew about it at the time other than the original members of the band. There was a lot of substance abuse goin’ on and wild living, it was very communal in a Pink Fairies sort of way, and no management, no business acumen, with a front man (myself) who was very driven and ambitious but introverted and mainly preoccupied with the artistic end of things.

8. Speaking of Simply Saucer shows, I love the story about how you once played a high-school prom. That just sounds like a bad idea from the start, given the nature of your music. Was it at least a good paying gig at the time? Did any of those kids become fans of the band?

That was the early band when we had a manager who told the principal of the high school that Simply Saucer were perfect for the occasion. The principal of the school freaked out after our first set and begged us to turn down and play nice – and so we thoughtlessly and selfishly cranked up our amps louder. I do recall a conga line forming when we played “Electro Rock” which was very bizarre. So we had made fans by the end of the night -and the money was good.

9. Did you ever have thoughts of taking the band somewhere like L.A., Detroit, or New York where there was already an established scene that might accept you?

That’s the $64,000 question. Yes, we did talk about it and in retrospect that’s exactly what the band needed to do. Personally I think London in ’74 would have been ideal for us: a scene, sympathetic, VU-influenced, hip. I could have developed properly. I was a first rate songwriter; not to boast but I was very confident of my abilities and frustrated here.

10. That six song recording that you guys did with Bob and Daniel Lanois is really an amazing collection of songs. I know you guys sent it out to labels in hopes of getting signed, but when label interest didn’t materialize, did you ever consider putting it out yourselves independently?

Our manager went to all the major Canadian labels and we got rejected and felt rejected. After that he wanted to rebuild the band around me with a different supporting cast and offered me a personal management contract which would have allowed him to hire and fire musicians, but I wouldn’t sign it and he left with the tapes of our Master Sound studio recordings and I didn’t get them back until years later.

11. In the decade between Simply Saucer breaking up in 1979 and when Cyborgs Revisited was first released on vinyl in 1989 did you feel a tremendous sense of frustration that you had been part of something really musically vital, but without anything in the public record to show for it? With of course the exception of a two song single (“She’s A Dog”/”I Can Change My Mind”) that wasn’t really representative of the band…

The band completely crashed and burned with members’ addictions out of hand. One eventually ended up in jail (but doing very well now and successful in another career). We fell into complete obscurity and I had a “lost decade” identity crisis. I can recall looking at bands on MTV or MUCH MUSIC with videos being called “innovative” or “edgy” and thinking, “Shit, I’ve been there and done that and much scarier than that.” I ended up burying my past, refusing to acknowledge it, avoiding musical friends, and trying to live as if it never happened. I did have a high-end Laskin acoustic guitar and began seriously learning how to play it, and continued to write songs throughout my ‘reclusive’ period, being a family man, exploring more the world of books and ideas, theology and philosophy, distributism. I toyed with the idea of going back to the land, living more simply, bread-making, cheese-making, home-schooling – totally removed from the former bohemian lifestyle; and that in itself was a new discovery for me, living in a regular home. I wrote all of Cyborgs Revisited in a dingy storefront, sleeping on a on- inch piece of foam with no bath, shower, stove, furniture…etc. Just constant street-life shuffling by.

12. I recently received a CD to review from Ty Segall and he does a pretty good cover of “Bullet Proof Nothing”. Have you heard it (the album is called Singles 2007-2010)? Have there been many Simply Saucer covers?

I have heard and it’s a good version. An English band from Blackpool called  Earthling Society covered “I Take It”. Have you heard of them? Great band, and a great version of the song.

13. The music you’ve made since Saucer broke up has been a lot quieter and closer to folk music. Was that a reaction against punk, or were your tastes just changing?

No, my tastes didn’t change. I had always loved the musical-hall stylings of Ray Davies and ditties of Syd Barrett and New Orleans-inspired Randy Newman songs as well as the more folkie Velvet Undreground songs and John Cale’s solo offerings, and just went in that direction. I had written a lot of material for Simply Saucer as well that was not in the psych/punk mode from the beginning, so it was a natural progression for me. Also the John Fahey influence began for me around ’77 ’78 in the band’s later years and as I said I had a guitar made by Grit Laskin who later on became a famous luthier whose instruments are now in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

14. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your experiences with The Third Kind? I found a few videos of them on Youtube but not much other information. The clips I saw remind me a little of The Feelies’ music from that period.

The Third Kind was myself and Simply Saucer bassist Kevin Christoff, original member David Byers and Kevin’s brother Derek. David and I were both writing for the band and it lasted for about a year or so. We never played out. David had toured the south listening to a lot of southern white gospel quartet music, and wrote a piece on Martha Carson for a music mag. We were both going in a more rootsy direction, with harmonies but still kinda punk and psych as well. David’s an excellent songwriter and does the graphic design for my recording and we have launched our own label to release our back catalogues and new music.

15. What are you currently working on and what do you have planned for the future?

In a week I’ll have my own new CD, Patches of Blue back from the manufacturer. It’s a collection of 12 songs with Simply Saucer bassist Kevin Christoff on it, as well as some great local musicians include Bill Dillon a guitar player who has recorded with Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan and many others, and keyboard Ed Roth who goes back to the Toronto Yorkville sixties sound and early underground scene including Ugly Ducklings, and session singer Colinna Phillips from there as well. Fiddle player Joe Clark from West Virginia, who played in the Carter Family fields as a child and is a monster musician, Mike Trebilcock from Canadian power-pop band The Killjoys. Anyhow, it’s a  roots record of soul-pop, jazz-pop, Acadian music…the whole gamut.

Simply Saucer recorded a 5 song EP in Detroit in the summer at Jim Diamond’s studio (he produced the early White Stripes stuff). The songs on it are “Baby Nova”, “Reckless Agitation”, “Low Profile”, “Dance the Mutation”, and “I Take It”. None of these have ever been recorded in a studio prior to this. Motown legend Mckinley Jackson sat in on the B3 and Fender Rhodes piano. It’s a very raw rockin set of songs and it’s coming out on Eleganza Records.